Education & Family

Parents labelled 'feckless' or 'pushy', say experts

Rioting in Peckham, south-east London
Image caption Poor parenting was blamed for looting and criminal behaviour in the summer riots

Parents are stereotyped as either "feckless" or "pushy" in a society that puts huge pressures on families, experts say.

The Family and Parenting Institute says intense scrutiny of parents has led to claims they are responsible for a deterioration in adolescent behaviour.

But its chief executive Dr Katherine Rake says there is no evidence of a decline in parenting standards.

If anything, parents are becoming more "professional", she says.

In an article to mark the start of Parenting Week, Dr Rake says parenting has become "one of the most charged political and cultural subjects of our age".

"The scrutiny of parenting has led to the idea of a parenting 'deficit', and the view that there are growing number of parents who are incapable," she adds.

"Yet, this focus of parenting skills is not matched by conclusive evidence about a decline in our standards of parenting."

The article is published after the government announced it was planning to try out free parenting classes in three areas of England.

Dr Rake continues: "There is a risk that the current debate on problem families unhelpfully adds another stereotype to a modern mythology of parenting.

"Alongside the 'pushy parent'; who helicopters around their child and elbows others out of the way in pursuit of their child's interests, we have the deficit model of a feckless parent, who is need of corrective state intervention."

She adds: "Much of the evidence available suggests that far from becoming a nation of apathetic, laissez-faire parents, many of us are spending more time with our children and having higher expectations of them."

'Increased scrutiny'

She continues: "Working mothers now spend more time with their children than non-working mothers did in 1981."

She also quotes research that suggests that more parents in 2006 expected their children to be polite and do their homework than did so 20 years earlier.

Dr Rake adds: "One of the explanations for the criminal behaviour of some young looters over the course of the riots was the poor parenting they had received."

She adds that "while it would be impossible to ascertain conclusively whether the 'quality' of parenting has improved or declined over time", a recent study suggested there was no evidence for declining standards of parenting over all.

At the same time parenting has been subject to the forces of "professionalisation" and "marketisation", she says which has "in turn led to increased scrutiny of our private, domestic lives".

She adds: "While the debate on parenting has been genuinely important in improving the quality of parenting that some children receive, it also inevitable leaves others feeling judged and under pressure to deliver to a set of fixed, and inevitable elusive standards."

'Problem families'

On problem families, Dr Rake said greater credence had been given to the idea that the government should intervene in what she described as "cases of market failure".

But there was an important distinction between so-called "problem families" who drive criminal activity and families who experience multiple problems, she said.

If the two were confused, the policies tackling the issue would fail, she suggested.

Helping such families turn things around, as was promised the wake of the summer riots, was likely to be a challenge and very costly, she warned.

Family Intervention Projects which have been seen as one of the main methods of doing this would require an investment of between £1.5bn and £2bn, she said.

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