Tyranny of the child gurus: You don't have to be a paranoid parent

Never before has the process of bringing up children been subject to so many strictures by self-styled experts. Now the backlash has begun.
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The Independent Online

There was a time when parents were told that to guarantee family happiness, children should be seen and not heard. Today it seems, to some, that a role reversal has taken place. In the 21st century, it is the parents themselves who are being told to shut up and learn from their betters.

The once private world between parent and child has been annexed by an army of policymakers, so-called childcare gurus and supernannies proffering a bewildering array of daunting, if well-meant, advice.

And this tyranny of expert advisers has made the already emotionally and financially draining tasks of bringing up children even harder, according to participants at an international academic conference being held at the University of Kent. Their theme is the runaway growth of the "intensive parenting" industry.

Experts from Britain, the United States, Canada and Germany will debate issues such as the "sacrilisation of bonding" and the " intensification of fatherhood". Others will look at the politicisation of parenting culture and the unnecessary medicalisation of childbirth.

Most provocatively, they will consider the long-term impact of the child-rearing manuals which now dominate the best-seller charts, advising on everything from the consistency of your child's stool to the ideal bed-time routine for babies.

Academics, including Dr Susan Douglas, co-author of The Mommy Myth, will also discuss how television schedules, weighed down with fly-on-the wall footage of toddler tantrums, are contributing to a climate of helplessness among parents.

Welcome to the Supernanny backlash.

According to Professor Frank Furedi, author of Paranoid Parenting and the Culture of Fear, who will introduce the conference, the pressures on parents have increased dramatically. As the father of an 11-year-old boy, he believes politicians' willingness to lay the blame for society's ills at the door of "bad" parents has been reinforced by the explosion in media interest in the subject.

"Back in 1998 Jack Straw said that you had to be very careful how you dealt with people's private lives. But year on year parenting initiatives cover younger and younger children - right back to children in the womb," he said.

In November 2006, Tony Blair aped the very language of the television screen when he announced 60 "supernannies" to combat antisocial behaviour.

One result of this phenomenon, according to Professor Furedi, is that Britain has undergone an unwanted "professionalisation and politicisation of childhood". He said: "We have got to the point now where we are treating parents like idiots - giving them the idea that there is only one right way to do things. There has to be a very carefully cultivated relationship between parent and child. What has grown up is a thriving parenting industry that politicians feed off."

Another key area of discussion at the two-day conference at the university's School of Social Policy at Canterbury, is the growing pressure on mothers to breastfeed. Dr Ellie Lee, the conference organiser, believes women's experience of child rearing has become "moralised and politicised" . "The choices women make in this area seem to have become bound up for many with identity," she said. The result is a growing band of demoralised and confused mothers.

Dr Lee sees women being disempowered: "By all accounts it seems as though mothering has become seen as too important to be left to mothers. As a result, mother-child interaction has become a laboratory, where politicians, professionals and experts of all kinds experiment about an expanding range of problems, real or imagined."

For Dr Sue Douglas, professor of communication studies at the University of Michigan, the media have helped make motherhood even more stressful for women. Celebrity mothers, who portray it as sexy and satisfying, compound the problem. She describes the ongoing quest for perfection - as paraded in celebrity magazines and Hollywood - as "the ultimate female Olympics". She said recently: "There's a difference between being a good mother and a perfect mother. And the pressure is worse than it was in the 1950s."

As well as the need to look good, which means no "old-lady make-up or old-lady things," she says, women are now encouraged by industries under the guise of experts to put in yet more hours trying in the race to create the most intelligent child.

The result is that toy manufacturers are now selling flash cards for six-month-old babies and sterilised toys for toddlers, she said. "And if you don't buy it, some other mom will buy that toy and someone else's child will be educated and your son won't," she added.

While some critics claim that the growth of the advice culture has come as traditional extended and nuclear families have declined and the number of women in the workplace - fuelled by government policy - has risen, Professor Furedi believes policymakers do have their place.

He believes a well-financed network of childcare institutions has proved more effective than Labour's much-vaunted Sure Start "social engineering " programme. "What we do not need is moralising, and we don't need politicians either," he said.

The Supernanny: Jo Frost

Frost became famous for her no-nonsense approach to weak parents in the popular Channel 4 reality television series Supernanny. Her fame soon crossed the Atlantic where she became a star after the show was screened there. Despite being childless, her methods for encouraging potty training, controlling sibling rivalry or stamping out tantrums have built her a devoted following.

Her basic philosophy is consistent and fair parenting, combined with the creation of a peaceful and ordered environment in which the child can feel secure. She encourages parents to follow through with threatened punishments while explaining exactly why they are doing so.

She is perhaps best known for introducing the naughty chair and naughty step, where badly behaved children take time out before apologising.

Her spin-off book from the series, Supernanny: How to Get the Best from Your Children was No 1 on The New York Times best-seller list and remained on the list for 17 weeks.

Her techniques have even been hailed by Tory MPs in Parliament and informed the creation of 80 "supernannies" by the Government to clampdown on antisocial behaviour.

Philosophy: "I beg to differ with the word dysfunctional. The families I work with have issues that many families can relate to."

The Queen of Routine: Gina Ford

Love her or loathe her, the 46-year-old childless former maternity nurse is rarely out of the news. Nicknamed "the Queen of Routine" for her uncompromising regime, implemented from birth, Ford has divided parents with her views, shifting hundreds of thousands of copies of her books in the meantime. A typical routine sees the day broken up into rigid time slots. Babies must be woken, fed, bathed and rested at prescribed times. Bedtime is a similarly structured affair.

Her most controversial idea is the use of controlled crying, whereby parents leave their children to cry until they learn to settle. The key, she says, is not giving in. To her critics, and there are many, this is insensitive and damaging. However, to many parents who have tried it, she has proved their salvation. Typical of her polarising effect is a spat with the internet community forum Mumsnet after members posted unflattering comments about her. Ford accused mothers of defaming her but settled out of court after the site apologised and said it would desist from publishing further insults.

Philosophy: "You'd think ... my mother brought me into the world to boil babies and eat them for dinner. I've devoted my life to helping mothers and I'm thrashed left, right and centre."

The Psychologist: Tanya Byron

The consultant clinical psychologist best known as a resident expert in the BBC's Little Angels. Operating at the more extreme end of child behavioural problems, she offered childcare solutions to parents struggling to cope with their seriously unruly offspring.

The sheer awfulness of some of the children's behaviour made for compelling television

As well as her sticker chart reward system, her trademark technique was to coach parents though an ear-piece as they attempted to put her advice into practice in flashpoint situations such as shops, dinner or bed time.

Her later series, House of Tiny Tearaways drew comparisons with Big Brother when it brought together three different families into a purpose-built house where their every movement was monitored by hidden cameras.

Byron offered the contestants therapy sessions, showing the families how to use simple exercises to discover the underlying problem and ways to work through it.

Families in the house also sought to help each other through difficult times.

She has co-written a book based on the Little Angels series and is currently co-writing The Life and Times of Vivienne Vyle with Jennifer Saunders.

She is also the patron of Prospex, a charity which works with young people in North London.

Philosophy: "If you want your children to respect you, show them respect. Give them lots of your time and attention. Praise them a lot for what you want and ignore what you don't want."

The Earth Mother: Sheila Kitzinger

Kitzinger has been one of the most high- profile parenting gurus since she began campaigning for the rights of mothers in the 1960s.

A mother of five daughters and three grandchildren, she is the author of some 24 books and a veteran contributor to radio and television debates.

She recently emerged as a passionate opponent of "controlled crying", declaring: "Crying is a call for help. If you don't respond, you risk depriving your child emotionally." On the merits of prescriptive parenting, she said: "It might work for dogs."

She has been a persuasive advocate to allow low-risk women the option to give birth at home and sought to highlight the positive effects surrounding the bond between mother and baby. Among her campaigns has been the drive to keep mothers and babies together in prison.

She teaches midwifery at Wolfson School of Health Sciences and lectures to midwives all over the world. She also teaches workshops on anthropology and breastfeeding. Her works range from pregnancy to birth and aftercare to post-natal depression, focusing on women's treatment. She was appointed MBE for her services to education for childbirth in 1982.

Philosophy: "For far too many women pregnancy and birth is something that happens to them rather than something they set out consciously and joyfully to do themselves."

The Baby Daddy: Benjamin Spock

To his fans, the Connecticut-born paediatrician's revolutionary Baby and Child Care, published in 1946, introduced many compassionate parenting methods. By the time he died in 1998, the book had sold more than 50 million copies. One of his enduring philosophies is that there is no one-size-fits-all rule - parents' intuition is usually more effective than the opinions of health professionals. He said parents should hug their babies regularly and pick them up if they cry at night. He is also credited with being the first paediatrician to embrace psychoanalysis as a means of understanding a child's demands and their relationships. Towards the end of the 1960s, he was accused of creating a rebellious generation bent on instant gratification. He said these were political attacks against his opposition to the Vietnam War. Some instructions, such as to lie babies on their fronts, also fell out of fashion.

Philosophy: "Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do ... The fact is that child-rearing is a long, hard job, the rewards are not always immediately obvious, the work is undervalued, and parents are just as human and almost as vulnerable as their children."