Turning parents into ‘partners of the state’

‘It is quite wrong to conclude that families are in decline. This is not my experience and authoritative, independent evidence, some of which is presented in this Paper, shows what I believe most people know for themselves: that all families have their ups and downs, but most people do the best they can to sustain family life for the benefit of their children, sometimes in the face of adversity.’ (Ed Balls, UK secretary of state for children, schools and families, ‘Support for All’ Green Paper, January 2010.)

Just when you think New Labour has lost its capacity for surprise, the children’s minister Ed Balls comes out with a statement so straightforward, humane and intuitively correct that it takes your breath away. Parents are not all rubbish, families are not all breaking down, and most people love their children and do their best to muddle through.

But then he goes and spoils it all by saying something stupid like: ‘This government’s conviction is that it is both possible and necessary to develop policies to support all families without intruding into the privacy of family life.’ Stupid because family policy, to a greater or lesser extent, has always intruded into the privacy of family life. And also profoundly dishonest. The family policy developed by New Labour has been all about making a concerted attack on the privacy of family life. It claims to be about ‘supporting families’; in reality, it tears them apart.

Four questions about New Labour’s family policy

When the New Labour government came to power in 1997, it catapulted family policy to the top of the political agenda. The 1998 consultation document Supporting Families was explicit in its explanation as to why the privacy of the family was a problem, and why the solution was greater government intervention. The foreword, by then home secretary Jack Straw, noted that families are still important – ‘the foundation on which our communities, our society and our country are built’ – but that they are also ‘under considerable stress’. He went on to acknowledge that families ‘do not want to be lectured or hectored, least of all by politicians’ – yet claimed that they did want a friendly kind of intervention by the state:

‘[W]hat families – all families – have a right to expect from government is support… [They] want clear advice to be available when they need it on everything from their children’s health to their own role as parents.’

The argument behind Supporting Families was that families are in crisis, and that previous governments had neglected their responsibilities by hiding behind the cloak of the privacy of the family. A government wedded to New Labour’s vision of ‘social inclusion’ and models of behavioural conformity intended to play a more explicit role in engaging with families at the level of everyday life, particularly in relation to child-rearing. Parenting classes were the best known of these initiatives, resulting in the creation of a whole new cadre of ‘parent trainers’, given official status in 2007 by the launch of the government’s £30million National Academy for Parenting Practitioners.

The first question to raise about the agenda behind Supporting Families is whether it was parents who wanted ‘clear advice’ from the government on ‘everything from their children’s health to their own role as parents’ – or whether the government had decided that it needed to dispense this advice. Certainly, the provision of parenting classes and the like has not sparked major rebellion amongst parents, and some parents have actively welcomed these initiatives. But New Labour was not elected on the basis that it would really help parents to decide what food to put in their children’s lunchboxes, and desperate mums and dads have not been invading Downing Street demanding clearer parenting advice from the prime minister. Whatever the impetus behind Supporting Families, it cannot be understood in terms of a response to a clear demand from families themselves.

The second question about Supporting Families is where the ‘supporting’ stops and the coercion begins. The support to families offered by New Labour was largely of a therapeutic kind, to do with ‘information’, advice and training in ‘parenting skills’, rather than material provision or financial help. In this vein, alongside the offer of voluntary parenting classes came more directly coercive initiatives such as Parenting Orders and other mechanisms designed to make ‘hard to reach’ parents engage with the state if they did not do so of their own accord. In 2005, as part of the launch of the government’s ‘Respect’ agenda to tackle antisocial behaviour, then prime minister Tony Blair spelt out just how much his government had done to transform respect for the privacy of the family into thinly veiled contempt.

A few years previously, Blair said, the talk of ‘parenting orders and parenting classes and support for people as parents… would have either seemed somewhat bizarre or dangerous, and indeed there are still people who see this [as] an aspect of the nanny state [and believe we are] interfering with the rights of the individual’. But, he continued:

‘[T]he point is this, we need to give people that support, and we need to do that particularly in circumstances where if we don’t give people that support, and also put pressure on them to face up to their responsibilities as a parent, they end up having an impact on the whole of their local community. So it is not something we can just say, well, that is just up to you as to whether you do this properly or don’t do it properly, because unfortunately the way that you do it makes a difference to the lives of other people.’

In seven years, the carrot of ‘parenting advice’ offered by the government had hardened into a very definite stick. Through parenting orders, argued Blair, ‘Parents themselves can be forced… to accept support and advice on how to bring discipline and rules to their child’s life’. And while the government had to accept that some parents really did not want this kind of ‘support’, they were to be forced to accept it anyway for their own good: ‘[W]hile most parents on these orders can resent them initially, I think often they grow to value the support they receive, and the vast majority indeed do comply with the order.’

The speed at which the New Labour government’s insistence that it just wanted to hold parents’ hands morphed into a full-on defence of issuing parents with court orders and locking them up if they didn’t comply shows the extent to which a touchy-feely therapeutic dynamic is the flipside of heavy-handed law’n’order. On one hand, the authorities give us friendly advice on healthy eating for children and tell us that ‘Every Parent Matters’ when it comes to our kids’ education; on the other hand, parents of truanting children are sent to jail, and fat kids end up on the child protection register.

The third question is about the sheer amount of family policy developed over the course of the New Labour government. If, as Ed Balls asserts, families are not in decline and most parents are doing a good job in difficult circumstances, why does the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) obsessively churn out documents that appear to respond to the crisis of parenting and tell us what we should be doing better? When I researched my book, Standing Up To Supernanny, I found that the DCSF website listed 28 new documents published in December 2008 alone – and this was not an atypical month. For the family to be subjected to this avalanche of policy interest implies that there must be a problem.

It could be, of course, that Balls’ positive account of the modern family is merely a rhetorical flourish. After all, when Jack Straw said in 1998 that families did not want to be ‘lectured or hectored, least of all by politicians’, this heralded a new era of politicians lecturing and hectoring all of us about everything. A key component of therapy culture is the way that subservience to ‘advice and support’ is garnered through flattery, and New Labour is certainly skilled in using these techniques, promoting the message that the reason it wants to help parents is because we are trying so hard. It could also be that Balls is positive about the family to indicate just what his government has done to support it: the second paragraph of his foreword is dedicated to detailing the measures New Labour has taken to ‘support children and families’ over the past 12 years, and to dwell on continuing problems would be a fairly stark admission of defeat.

PR techniques aside, though, the statement that the family is not in decline gives an important clue to the dynamic behind family policy today. What has motivated politicians to burrow ever deeper into the everyday ups and downs of family life is not the crisis of the family so much as the crisis of politics. In an era offering no grand political visions or social alternatives, social policy has come to adopt an increasingly individualised focus. Discussions about healthcare focus on individuals’ lifestyles – their drinking, smoking, eating and exercise habits – while any grander vision for sorting out the National Health Service is conspicuous by its absence. Politicians are obsessed with education, but their big idea is one that obsesses over personalised learning strategies for individual children, and engaging these children’s own parents in the project of their education.

It was striking, in the first televised debate between the leaders of the British political parties, that the crisis of care for the elderly was merely recognised by all as a really difficult issue, and the only thing the party leaders could offer by way of a solution was the idea that unpaid carers (that is, family members) should have access to one week’s respite care per year. This paltry policy response indicates the lack of social vision shared by all three party leaders, and also their reluctance to engage in ‘big state’ solutions to issues of care, socialisation and education. This relates to the fourth, and most important, question about the kind of family policy dominating the political agenda today: whether it supports and helps families, or undermines them and corrodes their autonomy.

Explicit family policy

New Labour’s approach to family policy was novel, not because it was the first time a government had intervened in family life, but because of the explicit character of this intervention and the therapeutic form that it took. The position traditionally held by the family in modern capitalist society has been one in which its role has largely been taken for granted. The state has related to the family through other institutions, such as the education system and the health service, and has had the power to play a more directly interventionist role in terms of child protection, through social services. Those families engaged with the welfare system have, for the past half-century, been forced to cede some of their privacy and autonomy in return for financial or housing support from the state.

But until New Labour, the idea that all families should be directly engaged with the state did not have great purchase. From politicians’ point of view, one of the major benefits of the family is that it has historically absorbed and contained many of the pressures that otherwise would be placed upon society at large, from child-rearing to individuals’ ill-health. If the state were to undermine or appropriate the family’s ability to absorb these pressures privately, a huge extra responsibility would be created for the state: as was clearly recognised in the party leaders’ discussion of elder-care. Therefore it was in the interest of society in general to maintain a private sphere of life, which operated according to its own informal rules and relationships, and which had its own dynamic.

Over the course of the past century, the privatised character of the family attracted criticism from a number of sources. As I explain at length in a previous spiked essay, ‘Why we need a parents’ liberation movement’, the left-wing critique of the family focused on the way that privatising childcare and domestic work formed the basis of women’s oppression, and progressive arguments were made about the liberating potential of socialising these activities. As such political ideals waned, a cultural critique of the family came to the fore, heavily influenced by the radical feminist movement, which saw the problem with the family in terms of male power and men’s behaviour leading to the abuse of women and children, and called for greater state intervention in the family to prevent domestic violence and child abuse.

The policy impact of this critique is clear in the landmark inquiries into cases of serious child abuse within the family, from the 1974 Maria Colwell inquiry to the 1985 Jasmine Beckford inquiry to the 2003 inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbié. At each stage of this process, the argument was made that the privacy of the family allowed for terrible atrocities to take place ‘behind closed doors’, and that more should be done by the state to monitor and regulate family life.

The child protection dynamic was important in gradually increasing the state’s interest in, and surveillance of, family life in the latter part of the twentieth century. However, this was not a straightforward process. The 1988 inquiry into the Cleveland affair, where over 100 children were removed from their families by professionals on (erroneous) suspicion of sexual abuse, and the 1992 Orkney Inquiry, where children were removed from their homes because of (unfounded) suspicions of organised sexual abuse, turned the spotlight away from abusive parents on to the trauma and injustice caused by an over-zealous state taking children away from their parents.

Revelations about abusive practices carried out in state-run children’s homes cast further doubt on the idea that the state could provide a kinder, safer alternative to child-rearing than could the family. This ambivalence about the ability of the state to protect children from abuse has continued in recent years, starkly indicated by the criticisms levelled at Haringey council in relation to the deaths of Victoria Climbié in 2000 and ‘Baby P’ in 2007.

Unfortunately, the fact that the state has been exposed as an imperfect carer of children has not meant that the family is positively extolled as an alternative. The key outcome of the high-profile child abuse inquiries highlighted here is that both the family and state-run institutions are now viewed as sites of potential damage to children’s wellbeing. The privacy of the family is opened up to question because of what might go on ‘behind closed doors’ – but the state fights shy of directly appropriating the role of parents, for fear of exposing its own weaknesses on this front.

The upshot is a strategy of professionalising parents, in which the authorities play a more directly interventionist role within the family through working with parents on the minutiae of child-rearing. This is expressed through the use of a new, and expanding, vocabulary employed by officials to describe parents: as ‘carers’, ‘edu-carers’ and ‘partners’ with the state in the project of child-rearing.

Many critics of the current trend towards increasing state intervention into family life articulate their concerns through reference to an increasingly authoritarian ‘nanny state’. But the direction of contemporary family policy is better understood not as the authorities trying to direct family life, but as the state trying to insinuate itself into family relationships. It is not the product of over-confident social policymakers who are making a political argument that they can do a better job than parents; rather it is the consequence of policymakers’ awareness of being out of touch and out of control, attempting to connect with broader society through involving themselves in the informal sphere of the family.

‘Supporting families’ – like a rope supports a hanging man

The impetus behind contemporary family policy is not motivated by a crisis of the family, but by a crisis of politics. In the absence of a political vision about how to organise society as a whole, politicians are attempting to get a handle on social policy by engaging with people at an increasingly intimate level, insinuating themselves into pre-political relations of authority and care. This has profound consequences for the family, both at the level of its institutional role and the lived reality of family life.

It should be recognised that family policy does not work. Politicians can try to prescribe child-rearing methods, but the ebb and flow of family life means that, whatever their intentions, everybody ends up just muddling through somehow. So even if it were true that children read to for a certain number of minutes each night by their parents were more likely to turn into high-achieving adults, or that children fed a particular diet were less likely to be hyperactive or obese, or that children disciplined according to ‘firm but fair’ reasoning rather than shouting or smacking were less likely to engage in antisocial behaviour, such practices simply cannot be willed into existence by a policy document and an official helpline. The fact that these deterministic assumptions are not true, combined with the amount of money and energy that has been thrown into creating policy on the basis of such rigid attachments to particular parenting practices, means that we can criticise contemporary family policy for being a shocking waste of public resources.

However, it is not simply a question of wasting resources. Family policy actively compounds the problems it seeks to tackle, by undermining the already precarious foundations upon which family life is conducted. As Ed Balls asserts, it is not the case that families are somehow failing. For all the tensions and difficulties apparent in the modern family, this remains a space in which parents continue to love, care for and socialise their children, and individuals nurture each other. But as the privacy of the family becomes gradually undermined by a policy dynamic aiming to bring individual family members into a more direct relationship of monitoring and accountability by the state, the family’s ability to continue to play its taken-for-granted role becomes gradually corroded.

The form this process takes is one of knock-on effects. For example, parents who are constantly encouraged to question their ability to make decisions about what their children should eat become less confident and more dependent upon official advice and intervention in these decisions. When the state starts providing breakfast clubs in schools on the grounds that it cannot be assumed that children eat a decent breakfast at the start of the school day, this has a subtle effect on the working of the family relationship – both in terms of whose responsibility breakfast is assumed to be, and the way that households begin the school day.

Similarly, when the state incites parents to become ‘edu-carers’, and take on board more personal responsibility for their children’s education, this creates new tensions between parents and the teaching profession, where the responsibility for a child’s literacy levels, or emotional wellbeing, becomes blurred. And on it goes.

The problem is not that, taken one by one and on its own terms, every family policy measure is a bad one. Many families, including my own, have benefited from initiatives such as breakfast clubs in schools or the (small) part-funding of pre-school childcare, which did not exist under previous governments. Nor is this a problem of New Labour alone. While I have focused here on policy developments over the past 13 years of a New Labour government, it should be remembered that many of New Labour’s ideas had been articulated and developed in the US first.

In relation to the forthcoming General Election, the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats have no intention of taking a different approach to the family: all parties are fighting over the same terrain of putting families at the top of the political agenda, and arguing for the need to play a more directly interventionist role in the early years of a child’s life. The new politics of the family, pioneered in the UK by New Labour, is endorsed across party lines.

And the problem is not that contemporary family policy is necessarily, or directly, having a negative impact on people’s experience of life with children. It has been persuasively argued by some academics and commentators that the cultural expectation upon parents to conform to ever-higher and more rigid ideals of ‘good parenting’ are resulting in a decline of parental confidence and an increase in anxiety, and that this is not a happy story for parents or children (1). It is also the case that parents often resent being bossed around by politicians.

But just as people are disengaged from politics in general, they are often distant from, and cynical about, the dictates of family policy – and among those who are not, many welcome certain forms of therapeutic intervention by the state. To put it another way: most people don’t go to parenting classes, and many of those who do rather like them.

As an argument against modern family policy, to say that it is unpopular or unpleasant does not work. Moreover, there is a lot about family life today that is arguably much better and more liberating than was the case in the 1950s or 1970s: for example, the rise in material living standards and the acceptance of working mothers. There was no Golden Age of the family, and there is no convincing argument for going ‘backwards’.

All that said, the current direction of family policy poses big problems both for the family as an institution, and for individuals’ lived experiences. The logic of policy developments, from Supporting Families to Support for All to whatever a Conservative government might come up with, is that the family is expected to play its traditional role of raising children and nurturing individuals in a context where this role is continually questioned and undermined. The family is not, as it once was, idealised as a haven in a heartless world: it is presented as the site for all sorts of problems and abuses, and tolerated by a political vision that sees the role of policy in terms of helping families to be less bad.

The lack of an ideal of the family provides for a crisis of meaning at the level of those living through it. This exacerbates the tensions within the family between individuals’ roles, as ‘unpaid carers’ of children, spouses and other kin, and their experiences, where individuals are encouraged to worry about the limitations their caring roles have placed upon ‘their own lives’ – and at the same time made to feel that they are not carrying out their caring roles sufficiently well. People can, and do, absorb these tensions to a certain degree – but it comes as little surprise when they then decide that they want out, and attempt to throw the responsibility for their children’s diets or their mother’s care back upon the state.

The consequence of this dynamic is that the informal relations of family life become gradually disorganised and formalised. Parents are discouraged from following their instincts and relying on their friends and family for support, and are oriented instead towards officially sanctioned child-rearing methods and sources of advice. This creates a sense of dependence upon the authorities, and incites adults to question, not only how they are looking after their children or elderly relatives, but why they should be doing it at all. In this sense, the trajectory of family policy is destructive of the most fundamental of human relationships – that between parents and children.

If politicians genuinely wanted to support families, their best bet would be simply to leave us alone. Or, as the American cultural historian Christopher Lasch put it back in 1980, we should have ‘nothing to do with the official search for a national policy on families. What the family needs is a policy on officials, designed to keep them in their place.’ (2)

First published by spiked, 28 April 2010.


(1) See, for example, Paranoid Parenting, by Frank Furedi, 2001; The Cultural Contradictions of Motherhood, by Sharon Hays, 1996); Perfect Madness, by Judith Warner, 2006.
(2) Women and the Common Life, by Christopher Lasch, 1997

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