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December 09, 2008

How to fix Britain's parents

Ian McEwan’s book The Child In Time puts its protagonist on a Thatcherite Official Commission on Childcare, a body formed to write an “Authorised Childcare Handbook” on behalf of the government, and dripping in sinister, authoritarian intent.

Twenty-one years after the novel was published, is it time to ask whether the handbook is such a bad idea?

Ironically it’s New Labour who have moved towards that ground since 1997.

In 2000, the then Home Secretary Jack Straw said, in a speech given after the passing of the Human Rights Act that:

parenting is a public – as well as intensely private – act… We must recognise people’s right to act according to their own lights, and their right – it’s in the ECHR – to respect for their private and family life. But Government cannot duck its responsibilities to help people make a success of parenting. This is essential if we are to achieve our goal of a stronger civil society, offering people more opportunities in life. Parenting is hugely important to creating the kind of society we want to live in.

Three years later, Clem Henricson wrote a report (PDF) for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, suggesting that a legalised parenting code is needed:

a code has the potential to influence attitudes to parenting, enhancing its social significance and creating an ethos where parents have a more fully recognisable role.

This is, after all, a problem where Britain is doing worse than many other countries. A 2006 report by the Institute for Public Policy and Research put the UK right at the bottom for teenage behaviour in Europe.

But the proof that a parenting code is needed comes not from reports, speeches and academia.

The failure of parenting is there to see on television and on the street.

Jeremy Kyle, Supernanny, Jamie’s Ministry of Food, even the grain of truth in Vicky Pollard on Little Britain, all point to there being something wrong. For every great parent, there seems to be another whose children will inherit all of their bad attitude and bad behaviour.

I was nearly pushed in front of a bus a few weeks ago, for instance (maybe the kids read my blog?). Every time I go to Tesco, I see a parent dragging their child around, screaming at them and showing little sign of affection towards them.

Gangs and knife crime are directly linked to inadequate parenting. But it’s not always the parents’ fault. The circle of bad parenting from one generation to another can only be broken by intervening.

Jo Frost, the Supernanny, who’s found fame on both sides of the Atlantic with her parenting classes, appears to have no problem finding parents who just don’t know how to control their children. But by the end of the episode, nine times out of ten, she’s taught mum and dad how to love their children.

How can we get every parent a supernanny? It doesn’t immediately seem like something that can be taught in schools – and teachers have got enough on their hands already.

Is an “Authorised Childcare Handbook” the answer? No, almost certainly not. Never mind the authoritarian undertones, parents would store it along with the government’s 2004 booklet Preparing for Emergencies. In the bin.

But maybe what we do need is an army of Supernannies. Such an army is supposed to exist – Tony Blair promised it in 2006 as part of his ‘Respect’ agenda. But a review carried out this year found ‘parenting practitioners’ are spread thinly and sporadically around the country.

And figures released by the DCSF after an FOI request show just 3500 families have received help from trained parenting advisers since 2006.

That’s supposed to be expanded to most local authorities over the next three years, but it feels like things aren’t moving fast enough.

We need cutbacks in government spending during the economic downturn, but we can’t afford to cut back on helping parents be parents. If we do, the next generation of children will be the same as the last.

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