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Lottery of birth
Lottery of birth

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7 Getting a ‘good parent’ in the lottery of birth

What is seen as good parenting and the responsibilities of parents differs around the world, but the idea that structural inequalities that affect children may be offset by a particular kind of parenting is a deep seated and pervasive idea.

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Figure 24

Family policy often revolves around the concept of a ‘good’ and effective parent. However, in her book Parenting, Family Policy and Children’s Well-Being in an Unequal Society, Dimitra Hartas (2014) makes some interesting observations about the ways in which parents and the state negotiate roles and responsibilities in unequal societies.

The making of the ‘good’ parent in late modernity

The obsession with effectiveness and efficiency as key organising principles of late modernity is felt in almost every domain in life, including parenting. Parents are expected to engage with the task of child rearing effectively and, in so doing, are encouraged to acquire parenting skills.

Within the family policy, narrow and prescribed views of an optimal child and a good and effective parent are based on the rationalisation of everyday life whereas the professionals’ expertise has eclipsed individual parents’ judgement. The state has become prescriptive about a parent-child interactions, considering child management, monitoring and control as indicators of effective parenting. Parents are expected to manage, monitor and control their children and to engage in specific activities with them that are deemed to be effective in creating responsible future citizens.

As such, parenthood is normalised as a formulaic a process that can be broken down into a series of prescriptive steps towards good parenthood, achieved through advice from parenting experts. For parents who do not abide by this orthodoxy and do not comply with the policy demands to mould their children’s lives (to fit the market), their effectiveness is questioned.

Original research by Baumrind (1967) in the United States produce three categories of parenting, namely ‘authoritative’, ‘authoritarian’, and ‘permissive’. Subsequent studies have proposed further categorisation, for example ‘traditional’, ‘intelligent’ and ‘indifferent’ (Maccoby and Martin 1983), and ‘intrusive’ and ‘inconsistent’ parenting (Feinstein et al. 2008). Policy-endorsed norms for parenting appear to favour authoritarian or intrusive types of parenting (Churchill and Clarke, 2010) in that the ideal parent is one who monitors and controls their children, whereas the duty to assist them in developing as morally competent agents has become increasingly marginalised.

Parenting is deemed successful or not and its evaluation relies on policy-endorsed criteria of good parenting backed by the parenting ‘science’. This, however, raises important ethical and philosophical questions about the implications of reducing complex relationships, affective experiences, social interaction and moral dilemmas into a checklist. Despite parents being seen as omnipotent, as Judith Suissa argues,’ parenting has become not so much expanded and impoverished’ (2006: 32). Increasingly, children’s and parents’ social and Civic spaces, crucial for developing autonomy and moral judgement, are shrinking. The policy focus on the parental governance has restricted parents diverse possibilities because parents operate within communities, such as families and schools and neighbourhoods, within which they can easily become invisible because their voices do not challenge the boundaries of these spaces (Rose, 1999a). What some children lack, especially disadvantaged children, is accessing public spaces and interacting with adults who are in a position to exercise adult authority.

However, the type of parenting that is considered effective in family policy is about social control, and relating to children through control and monitoring is a troubling prospect. Further, current policy advocates conception of parenting of human and financial capital maximises whose parenting practices should lead to a predetermined outcomes, rather than a parent who rewards and punishes children in an attempt to cultivate certain mores and codes of behaviour, congruent with their family and community values. Children as future investments and the parental capacity to operate with in the market have become proxy indicators of how well the task of parenting is accomplished: market logic and values have replaced nurturing.

As such, a good parent is a learning parent and entrepreneur against whom good and effective parenting is measured: a specific life plan is promoted with clear consequences if the plan is not followed. This explains the high levels of parental anxiety and child and happiness in the 21st-century Britain as identified in the 2007 UNICEF report.

The notion of ‘good’ parenting has a judgement value that is hard to define, becoming a platform for the projection of various meanings to fit various agendas. The emphasis on parenting in family policy is justified through invocations of research evidence, neuroscience mainly, to objectify the role of parent in raising children and maximising opportunities for social advancement and social mobility. As such, good parenting is through to compensate for social and economic disadvantage.

New Labour’s and the coalition government’s stance of what the parents do and not who they are matters, has introduced a new moral code, especially considering that such a statement has lately been articulated by David Cameron and Nick Clegg whose developmental and professional trajectories, life chances and opportunities of social advancement were the result of who their parents were in terms of their capacity to access and use resources and networks and offer a privileged upbringing to them. Such attempts to diminish the impact of privilege and deny role of social class in defining young people’s life chances invoke a new morality in the political discourses about poverty and child rearing, one that does not engage with the societal and economic constraints and affordances in people’s lives. Furthermore, the view that what parents do makes all the difference in children’s lives invokes hubris and has negative implications for cultural understandings of parenthood and childhood.

A state-endorsed view of the ‘good’ parent has corrosive effects on parents’ confidence. The economic calculations coupled with a lack of confidence that some parents may have in their parenting can be disempowering. Conceptions of parenting as another proximal factor are reductionist in that they imply that the emotional and intellectual exchanges and experiences between children and parents can be reduced into a set of variables whose effect on child well being can be calculated and approximately remodelled. ‘Good’ parenting is regarded as a question of technique instead of being fundamentally about quality of relationships and affective experiences between parents and children. Parenting is not a set of skills but an object of care […].

Raising children is not a practical problem that requires technical or managerial solutions, panic driven in most cases, about how to make parenting effective. Increasingly, parents are under pressure from family gurus and educational institutions (e.g. schools) to offer concerted cultivation to their children. However, good parenting is not about moulding children to an image of a child with a competitive edge but about the richness of relationships with others. As Sandel argues, children’s qualities are unpredictable and influenced by many factors, and parents alone cannot be held wholly responsible for the kind of children they have. Child rearing is an invitation to many possibilities, an ‘openness to the unbidden’ (Sandel 2004).

(Hartas, 2014)

In the next section, you will review the week’s learning.