Parenting in the UK

Unpublished letter to The Guardian: Parenting in the UK.

 keywords: children, tickbox culture, corprate values, love and power, ethic of care, society’s parenting.

Introducing business methods into areas of life and work concerned, not with manufacture or bonus-chasing financial manipulation, but with the care, protection, and development of human lives, guarantees damage, failure and disaster: the creation of fearful victims, instead of confident and caring children and adults. Masculinist, corporate values are not designed to deliver loving care and attention; nor the kind of generosity Mark Johnson has in mind (‘Enough scapegoating. We all need to be better parents.’10 08 09).

This is a society so disinterested, neglectful and callous in its approach to children, their upbringing, education and care, that it authorised (by default or political inertia?) a punitive, tickbox culture across the old public sector, privatising (in both senses) misery along the way.

Investing in systems and methods, instead of people (children and practitioners), will always be a mistake. Caring, parenting, and educating involve a complex mix of human interactions that foster and support, for example: language and communication skills; personal and social development; emotional and imaginative growth; confidence-building; well being and a sense of social and cultural belonging; social and political awareness; sensitivity to others; respect.

Fergal Keane decided, on reflection, that kindness is the necessary virtue he wanted his son to experience, understand and be capable of (see Keane, 2006. All these People. A Memoir).

Shulamith Firestone, an early and prescient American feminist, said love and power don’t make it together. In choosing the one, we forego the other. The loving, firm generosity of the good parent, that Johnson cites, applies equally to the ‘good enough’ (paediatrician, Donald Winnicot’s term, meaning both routine and special) carer or teacher or person, and is an unglamorous, not-for-profit, long-term process, with no absolute guarantees of ‘successful outcomes’. It also constitutes an ethic in itself.

Feminist ethics has sought to assert an ethic of care as of equal import as the established ethic of justice (see Debra Shogan, ed. 1993, A Reader in Feminist Ethics). It is clear that, in the context of turbo-capitalism, we have failed to effect this transformation in the UK. Care is still identified, in the minds of conventional men with power and influence, as pertaining to the lives and needs of women, children and animals; by (patriarchal) definition: subordinates. And it’s still seen, and therefore devalued, as ‘women’s work’: ‘feminine’ and (mere) labour.

The evidence of society’s failure to parent with loving, firm generosity is surely not unconnected with the deeply unsatisfactory preparation afforded children and young people in the UK for critically understanding gender power relations, gendered dominance, sexual identities, femininities, masculinities, sexual violence, etc.. Children are not the only casualties, of course. But they must be counted as victims of a gender system that UK society and government have studiously refused to accord the serious attention now paid to racism, for example.

Babies and children cannot put themselves forward for equality and justice. They cannot institute grievance procedure or assert their human rights. Adults have to do that for them.

Children and young people must be seen to matter more than bankers or celebrities; and more than the desire of old-style, heterosexual men for business as usual. Let’s make the U-turn, instead of carrying on down the hate-and-blame, power-and-control path, blinkers on, over the cliff. All of us.

val walsh / 24 08 2009


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