Was social mobility tsar and former Dragons' Den star James Caan right to give his kids a helping hand?

The business guru said they should make it alone – but didn’t follow his own advice. What about the rest of us?

‘I would find it very difficult not to help my child’

John Simpson is the BBC world affairs correspondent. He has two daughters, Julia and Eleanor, and a son, Rafe.

It's a dreadful hangover from the past. It's like incest. It means the blood stock of any outfit becomes enfeebled. If one organisation is full of sons and daughters, it's no good for the organisation and it's no good for the kids. We ought to give them 20 quid in their pockets, a packed lunch, and say don't come back until you've earned a living!

But my kid is only seven so it's not a pressing issue for me, but I'm sure I'll find it very hard to look him in the eye and say to him I'm not going to help you get into the BBC or into journalism.

Not that I can get him a job anyway, but you ring people and say look, how about letting my son work on your newspaper for three or six months and, because it's a friend of yours, they say yes. It's very difficult to say I will not do this, even though I disapprove of it. It's your kid and they look to you for some sort of help.

I wouldn't be good at denying my son anything – especially for someone like me, an older parent, to say "buzz off, you're on your own" would be difficult.

When I was younger I might have been different with my daughters because I was tougher and fiercer back then, but I'm not sure I could have done it even with them.

I respect anyone who does it and I agree in principle, but when it comes down to it, I just don't think I could do it.

‘If it’s handed on a plate, it’s less valuable’

Nutritionist Kirsty Henshaw found success on Dragons' Den after securing investment in her 'free from' business Kirsty's. She has a seven-year-old son.

I think you should encourage children to be in business but you don't want to make them do what you think is right. You want them to do what makes them happy, even if it's not going to make them a lot of money.

My mum and dad have a lot of knowledge about nutrition but they've not got a lot of money. I had help with knowledge, support and babysitting, but no financial help. I learned a lot from them which was definitely more valuable than financial help. I've seen nepotism before. It's quite unsuccessful because it means people rely on others. Meeting people yourself can be more successful. It is life experience which is valuable. I've met everyone myself, picked up the phone and not been scared to ask.

When I went on Dragons' Den I was working two jobs to put the money into the business. If something is handed to someone on a plate it becomes less valuable.

I can't imagine my son wanting to do the same as me, but if he did I'd like to help him but not spoon-feed him. The way I've been brought up is that you find your own way and you make your own mistakes.

Future business people should think about what they really love doing and don't do something for a quick buck. Business is very hard but if you enjoy it then it's worth it.

‘All parents should be pushy’

Toby Young is best known as the author of How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, the tale of his stint in New York as a contributing editor at Vanity Fair magazine. He has helped to set up West London Free School, and he has four children.

I think James Caan deserves credit for trying to tackle the problem of nepotism head on. But the rationale he came up with for why pushy parents shouldn't use their contacts to get their children summer internships was a bit muddled. He seemed to be saying that if middle-class parents hold back and encourage their children to stand on their own two feet, that will be good for their children in the long run and actually enhance their career prospects.

But if that's the case, then encouraging sharp-elbowed parents to back off will mean less social mobility, not more. His real reason for saying that is because he wants to create more room at the top. The only way to do that is if we have downward social mobility, and we can't say to parents, "Let your children sink to the bottom."

Any strategy to increase social mobility that depends on pushy middle-class parents doing less for their children is doomed.

I'll do everything in my power to help my children in their careers. I'm not going to refrain from helping them because I think that they might be taking the place of someone else's child who is more deserving.

The solution is not to encourage middle-class parents to be less pushy; it's to encourage all parents to be equally pushy.

'It’s lazy to say parents are to blame’

Political blogger Ellie Gellard, 24, launched the Labour manifesto at the beginning of the general election campaign in 2010. She blogs as the Stilettoed Socialist.

I don't think we can moralise or legislate or draw any huge conclusions about parents wanting to help their children. What is wrong is we have situations with unpaid internships or tuition fees at £9,000 a year where young people are discouraged to go for the same opportunities that people from wealthy backgrounds go for.

People who have the right ideas and the right morals and thinking and ideology should have the access. It's about making that level playing field.

Parental instinct means I would do anything possible to try to encourage my children and show what politics involves. But I hope my children will be playing the game with the same rules as someone who doesn't have a parent from a political background. I hope by that time a leg-up won't be necessary.

I don't think you can castigate parents for wanting the best for their children. It's a lazy approach to say that parents helping or not helping are to blame. It's much more complex.

‘A tsar can’t bring about social mobility’

Frank Furedi is an author and professor of sociology at the University of Kent.

The idea that a "tsar" can bring about social mobility seems in itself really weird, and I think James Caan has confused two different issues. Firstly, that it's good that kids can make it on their own, which it undoubtedly is. Secondly, the issue of social mobility, which these comments do not address.

There's no way parents are going to do anything other than help their kids, and there is nothing really wrong with that. But if you are interested in social mobility, you have to focus on a reorganisation of society. You need to create a situation where young kids have more access to resources and on a more equitable basis.

But the idea that parents would not help their kids is insane. I've not met a parent who would say that for the good of society they would let their kid flounder. Yes, it should be possible for every child to have far greater access to public resources, and to succeed that way. That is the problem that needs to be addressed, not things that go on in the home. It's wrong to direct the problem towards parents – they are not gods.

‘I couldn’t help Molly to secure a role’

Actor Samantha Bond, 51, is in Passion Play at the Duke of York Theatre in London. Her daughter, Molly, is also an actor.

I don't think my personal success had an impact on Molly's decision to pursue acting. Lots of mine and my husband's (the actor Alexander Hanson) friends are actors and so your world very quickly becomes quite small. I tried to encourage Molly to get a "proper" job as I am all too aware of the insecurity of the acting profession.

I couldn't help Molly to secure a role, that sort of nepotism just doesn't happen in the acting world. All I can do is help her to prepare for interviews and offer her my advice.

‘My parents didn’t help me find a job’

Scottish entrepreneur Fraser Doherty is CEO of SuperJam and director of the registered Scottish charity, The SuperJam Tea Parties.

My parents didn't help me find a job. They just said the most important thing in life was looking forward to the day ahead and if you enjoy your job that's a success. Instead of using their own contacts parents should encourage their kids to do something they enjoy.

Perhaps parents think their children will go into the family business, but it's a good idea to have people who aren't part of a family, otherwise it makes it hard for people to say things that need to be said. What's important is that whoever gets the job is the best person.

Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
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