How the nationalisation of parenting stoked the riots

‘We have nationalised child-raising’, claimed Shaun Bailey, head of the charity My Generation, during an autopsy of the riots and looting that swept England in summer 2011. Bailey continued: ‘People think that the government is responsible for their children – that weakens the family structure. One of the worst things as a parent is having nothing to teach your children; one of the worst things as a child is to believe that authority lies outside your parents.’ (1)

Now, I am spontaneously prone to questioning the pronouncements of Big Society worthies such as Shaun Bailey. I have no idea what My Generation actually is; according to the Charity Commission records, it has now ‘ceased to exist’. And it was striking that, having denounced the ‘nationalisation’ of parenting by the state, Bailey’s proposed solutions seemed to involve yet more of the same: for example, that school pupils should be taught about ‘parenting’ from an even earlier age.

But Bailey’s diagnosis of the dangers inherent in eroding parental authority was absolutely spot on. By attempting to ‘nationalise’ childrearing, whether by providing classes to instruct parents in officially approved childrearing methods or by using schools to inculcate children in a heightened awareness of the failings of their mothers and fathers, in recent decades, government parenting policy has stripped parents of their directly authoritative role.

Instead of being the boss of their own homes, parents are situated as mediators in the relationship between the child and the state, and told that their primary responsibility is not to do right by their child but to show that they are doing the right thing according to the current parenting orthodoxy. The effect of this, as Bailey suggested last year, is to disorient both parents and children, as both question the basis for parental authority.

Was this what caused the riots last summer? Not on its own. The behaviour of those young people engaged in the mayhem was profoundly shocking – but so, too, was the response of the adult population, from the middle classes cowering in their living rooms and boasting about that in the press, to the failure of the police to intervene decisively. What underpinned the chaos was the open collapse of adult authority, and this should have provided a wake-up call to our society about the need to grow up and take responsibility for the younger generations.

But the problem of parental authority forms an important part of the generalised crisis of adulthood, and it is worth reflecting on the relationship between the two.

Nationalised parenting and the problem of discipline

My book Standing Up To Supernanny is largely a critique of ‘parent bashing’, where parents are held singlehandedly responsible for everything that might go wrong with their kids, from a decayed tooth to teenage angst, to failure to achieve top grades in their numerous (and increasingly, apparently meaningless) school exams. The widespread acceptance of parental determinism is one of the most limited and cowardly ideas of our time. It seeks to find a simplistic personal cause to every social problem, and has the effect of absolving society at large from doing anything other than nagging parents about how to behave (see: Parental determinism: a most harmful prejudice, by Frank Furedi).

For all the reasons that officials like to bash parents, it was not surprising to see this technique emerge as part of the response to last summer’s riots – for example, in prime minister David Cameron’s opportunistic scapegoating of 120,000 ‘troubled’ families as the cause of the modern malaise. But what was, if anything, worse than the parent-bashing was the outpouring of fatalism that situated ‘poor parenting’ within a comprehensive list of the ills of the modern age.

On 14 August 2011, for example, the Independent claimed that the riots were the product of ‘a perfect storm of school holidays, rising living costs, warm weather, cautious police tactics, rolling TV news and social media, [alongside] deep-seated social and cultural problems, including poverty, failing schools, gangs, joblessness, materialism and poor parenting’.

In some sections of the press, this generalised sense of angst quickly morphed into the idea that the riots were merely an understandable – even tacitly condonable – reaction to the naff consumerism of modern life, economic problems, the behaviour of bankers, and anything else that the liberal intelligentsia might not like about twenty-first-century Britain (including the weather). As such, the more interesting critiques of the problem of contemporary parenting culture were deftly sidelined when they could have been directly addressed and debated.

For example, parent-bashing tends to assume that parents don’t care enough about their kids. Yet evidence of recent decades suggests that, whether they live in leafy Surrey or inner-city Tottenham, parents are putting more time, energy and anxiety into trying to do right by their kids than any previous generation. The problem is that they increasingly seem to lack the authority to mould their kids into an image of responsible adulthood; meaning that when 18-year-olds start having toddler tantrums and trashing their own neighbourhoods, nobody knows quite what to do.

The problem of parental authority in the immediate aftermath of the riots was most clearly expressed in parents’ complaints about how they felt disempowered in their ability to discipline their children. Having been told by social services and other official agencies that the only permissible forms of discipline were those associated with ‘positive parenting’ – in other words, praise and persuasion, which are not forms of discipline at all – they felt helpless to control their kids when their behaviour started to get out of control.

Some, including London mayor Boris Johnson and the Labour MP for Tottenham, David Lammy, have engaged with this problem, and made some welcome arguments as to why restrictions on parents’ disciplinary methods have gone too far and why parents should be able to smack their children when necessary. However, the recognition of the need for parental discipline needs to be underpinned by a broader sense that it is adults who make the rules, and that it is right for them to impose sanctions when things go wrong.

For parents to exercise authority, there has to be a presumption of parental authority. This presumption has been in decline for some time, but it is now becoming clear just how comprehensively it has been eroded by two decades of ‘nationalised’ parenting policy.

The slow demise of adult authority

The anxiety about out-of-control youth is not new. Historians have noted a particular peak in this anxiety in the immediate postwar period, when anxieties about the emergence of the ‘teenager’ developed as a particular law-and-order problem in the form of ‘juvenile delinquency’. John R Gillis’s 1974 book, Youth and History, describes the concerns like this:

‘The notion of a period of life freed from the responsibilities of adulthood was too easily distorted by the more restive members of the younger generation into the frightening image of the rebel without a cause. And if rising rates of delinquency were not enough to give second thoughts, there was also the realisation that even the more benign features of adolescence, including its political passivity and social conformity, mirrored other well-known weaknesses of adult society.’ (2)

Alongside anxieties about delinquent youth, there were also concerns about the decline of the authoritative adult, and the consequences of this for failing to contain problems. For example, John Barron Mays wrote, in his 1961 article about ‘Teenage Culture in Contemporary Britain and Europe’: ‘The majority of those who rebel in this period would, given adequate support and firm but sympathetic leadership, adjust to their growing-up problems in socially acceptable ways. But the failure of older members of the community, especially of parents and educators, to give them adequate support, makes them temporarily easy victims for the illegal promptings of a handful of seriously maladjusted and emotionally disturbed instigators.’ (3)

Even though, in the 1950s, there was a fear that adults weren’t quite up to the job of keeping all the young people in check, there remained a sense that the ‘rebels without a cause’ were a minority who could, and should, be brought under control. Despite the often bleak view of adult society at that time, there was still a clearly understood distinction between adults and children, and a view that adult society needed to sort its own problems out, rather than indulge the lashing-out of its youth.

By the time Christopher Lasch wrote his bleakly prescient 1977 book Haven in a Heartless World: The Family Besieged, the decline of authority within the adult community at large was both mirrored and exacerbated by the erosion of parental authority within the family. Part of this problem, according to Lasch, was the extent to which agencies and cultural influences external to the family were taking on increasing aspects of the socialisation process.

In consequence, argued Lasch: ‘Relations within the family have come to resemble relations in the rest of society. Parents refrain from arbitrarily imposing their wishes on the child, thereby making it clear that authority deserves to be recognised as valid only insofar as it conforms to reason.’ This resulted in a ‘growing gap between discipline and affection’ in the American family at that time, where discipline was outsourced. (4)

Lasch’s argument about the distinctiveness of parental authority from that imposed by other agencies is important to address. For Lasch, it is problematic when the authority of mum and dad appears just like the authority of a teacher, a politician or a boss, in that it has to be earned, and that it can and should be questioned. That is because relations within the family are different from relations within the rest of society. Family relations are implicit, affective, emotional, physical; parental authority is all-encompassing in a way that official diktat never can be.

That is why the phrases ‘I’ll tell your mum’ or ‘wait ’til your father gets home’ have historically had far greater import with children than being given detention at school or told off by a policeman for throwing stones at derelict buildings. Today, though, the phrase ‘you’re not the boss of me’ is as likely to be used in backchat to a mother or father as it is to a teacher. Adult authority has become so diminished that, culturally, no source of authority is assumed to carry weight over younger generations.

Authoritarianism is no substitute for authority

One consequence of the undermining of parental authority, according to Lasch, is authoritarianism: ‘Law enforcement comes to be seen as the only effective deterrent in a society that no longer knows the difference between right and wrong.’ In contemporary Britain, one clear consequence of the undermining of tacit forms of authority – that of parents, primarily, but also that of adults within the community – has been that the only people who are ‘allowed’ to exercise discipline over children are those who have been specifically charged by the state with this task, and trained accordingly.

So teachers, probation officers, social workers and community co-optees who have undergone Criminal Records Bureau checks and attended certain training courses are presented with a badge of authority, which is supposed to signal that they are to be trusted and that they should be obeyed. Anyone who falls outside the sphere of official regulation – parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, neighbours, family friends, residents of a community – is warned, by a combination of cultural norms and the direct threat of sanction, to hold back.

This has important consequences for the sense of adult authority in general. If parents feel nervous about smacking, or shouting at, their own children, they feel 10 times more nervous about imposing their authority upon other people’s children. In this situation, the need for control over youth is either batted back to the parents, whose ability to do it is constrained by the orthodoxy of ‘positive parenting’, or it is handed over to the authorities, who, it turns out, cannot do the job either.

This latter point was starkly revealed during last summer’s riots, with the collapse of the police. In August 2011, Omar Malik, whose flat was caught up in what The Sunday Times describes as the ‘moral blaze’, called the police twice and the fire brigade three times, in vain. ‘We felt completely abandoned in our hour of need’, he said. When he asked his five-year-old son to draw a picture of the fire, as ‘therapy’, he recalled that, ‘the child drew his burning home with firefighters pointing their hoses in the wrong direction, while police stood by doing nothing’ (4).

The failure experienced by Malik’s family, and indeed by the communities affected by the riots, was not simply the police being too inept to do their job. It was a sense that all adult authority had suddenly disappeared. And if society loses that fundamental sense that the adults are in charge, then you can arm a body of men as much as you like but it won’t be able to contain the problem.

The British police force currently has a number of institutional problems, all of which contribute to its often apparent inability to act effectively; but its paralysis in the face of young people is intrinsically related to the wider anxiety about who is the boss in the adult-child relationship. Police officers, like teachers, social workers and others, are trained according to the idea that young people are supposed to be listened to, negotiated with, flattered and cajoled, but never criticised or forced to behave. So when they don’t behave, all hell breaks loose.

In this regard, the crisis of adult authority today goes far deeper than that described by Christopher Lasch in 1977. He warned that its absence would lead to law enforcement being seen as the ‘only effective deterrent’ to wrongdoing – in fact, when the distinction between right and wrong really does become lost, transgressors do not even consider the possibility that they might be held to account for breaking the law.

This was perhaps best summed up by the much-reported story of the female looter who was caught on a shop’s CCTV camera trying on shoes before she stole them: the surprise was less that she stole the shoes than that she never considered that she would be held to account for doing so. It was previously revealed in the arrogance of some of the students protesting against the education cuts, who did not bother to conceal their identities when causing damage, and were surprised when the cops come knocking at their door.

It should be stressed that the upshot of the police lacking authority over young people is not that we will have a kinder, more humane society. Rather, the inability to act in an authoritative way merely leads the police force to seek blunter technical means of enforcing social control – as with the bizarre discussion about the need to use water cannons and other violent tools in the face of any future riots.

Within the family as well, the erosion of adult authority does not mean that children enjoy more freedom of expression, or that they are raised to become happier beings. As Shaun Bailey said: ‘One of the worst things as a child is to believe that authority lies outside your parents.’ If there is one positive lesson that we can learn from last summer’s riots, it is that the nationalisation of parenting makes everything worse, and that reclaiming our kids would indeed make the world a better place.

First published by spiked, 17 July 2012.


(1) ‘If this was a social reaction, it was a social reaction to the need for Gucci jeans’. The Times, 13 August 2011

(2) Gillis, John R. (1974) Youth and History: Tradition and Change in European Age Relations 1770-Present. New York and London: Academic Press, p185

(3) Mays, John Barron. (1961) ‘Teen-Age Culture in Contemporary Britain and Europe’. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 338, Teen-Age Culture (Nov., 1961), pp. 22-32

(4) Lasch, Christopher. (1977) Haven in a Heartless World: The family besieged. New York and London: Basic Books, p174

(5) ‘Lost in the moral blaze; One small spark led thousands – from underclass gangs to opportunists – to abandon all scruples and run riot.’ The Sunday Times, 14 August 2011

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