Jan MacVarish discusses the problems facing today’s parents that inhibit natural parenting instincts and replace them with the diktats of the bureaucracy:
Here are two scenes which illustrate contemporary parenting culture.
In the first, I am called into my son’s primary school by the ‘family-liaison officer’. I am surprised to learn that she is investigating the concerns of a teacher who has overheard my son and his friends discussing their mothers’ favourite punishment methods. Whereas one of the mothers (who I know) reportedly kicks her boy in the privates with her stilettos, and another (who I also know) prefers to administer an ‘African slap’, my chosen method is, apparently, to hit my son with a frying pan. Visions of Tom and Jerry immediately spring to mind, and I laugh at the ridiculousness of the schoolboys’ conversation. The family-liaison officer admits that it is highly unlikely that a mother such as me (white and middle class) would engage in such behaviour, but, she tells me, she is nevertheless obliged to ask if I have ever deployed the family skillet as a weapon. I am now amused, bemused and starting to see that this could have played out very differently if I were perceived to be one of those ‘other’ parents.
Scene two: While swimming in the local pool with frying-pan boy, I notice a mother engage in an exhausting 20-minute argument with her one-year-old baby boy. He had slapped her, so she was asking him in a quiet, controlled voice to look her in the eye and apologise for ‘hurting mummy’. Being a baby, he refused to comply, and became more and more upset as the request was repeated again and again. My sympathy was equal for both mother and child: he was sobbing and she seemed forlornly trapped in some kind of ‘good parenting’ ritual, in which the parent conveys to the child the emotional consequences of their actions – ‘you hurt mummy, that makes mummy feel sad’ – and expects the child to take ‘ownership’ of their actions.
Both of these scenes demonstrate the abandonment of common sense and, indeed, any kind of ‘instinct’ when it comes to adults relating to children. When you remove any element of instinct from parenting, you replace trust, care, love and joy with empty rituals of ‘safeguarding’ or ‘good parenting’. The family-liaison officer’s dutiful yet hollow investigation makes clear just how corrosive the institutionalisation of parent-blaming in schools has become, while the mother’s exchange with her baby in the pool showed how futile and joy-draining following abstract, good-parenting guidelines can be.