Beware the dangerous effects of parent power

Concerned parents have become ruthless, self-important activists on behalf of their children
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The Independent Online

Concerned parents are back in the news. Some are concerned about whether the kids will be able to pass exams without private tuition. Others are concerned about drugs, diets or peer pressure. Those who have only recently graduated to becoming concerned parents fret loudly and publicly about the quality of babyminders or the MMR vaccine.

Concerned parents are back in the news. Some are concerned about whether the kids will be able to pass exams without private tuition. Others are concerned about drugs, diets or peer pressure. Those who have only recently graduated to becoming concerned parents fret loudly and publicly about the quality of babyminders or the MMR vaccine.

Mr Shawn Gladding of Norwich was so concerned by his son Lewis's reports of bullying in the playground that he went into the Angel Road Middle School, found the headteacher, pinned him against the wall and, as screaming children ran for cover, attempted to make his point with his head – his forehead, that is.

After what the school secretary described as the most abusive and violent attack she had witnessed in 14 years, the headteacher was rescued by two other teachers. Up before a stipendiary magistrate this week, Mr Gladding was given an evening curfew for four months, required to do 180 hours of community service and ordered to pay £60 costs. Little Lewis has not reported any bullying since the incident. No teacher, and few parents, will be surprised by this story. Every day in the year, a parent will walk into school and express his or her concern in the most direct way available: 58,000 instances of parental aggression have been recorded by the Teachers Support Network over the past two years.

Outside school, it is pretty much the same story. Anyone who has managed a boys' football team, even for children as young as seven or eight, will know that it is rarely the players who are rude or troublesome. The problems invariably come from the thuggish, enraged parents on the touchline, eager to introduce their progeny to the game's nastier tricks.

David Blunkett and Estelle Morris have identified this decline in parental decorum, and union leaders, such as Nigel de Gruchy of NASUWT, have confirmed that, when it comes to the brutalising of teachers, adults are the prime source of the problem. But, behind the warnings and head-shakings lies a comfortable assumption. This is an underclass issue. Teacher abuse is the sort of thing that dysfunctional, problem families get up to.

Something odd has happened to family life throughout society. Once, having children was regarded simply as something people did – a personal decision involving sacrifice and privilege in about equal measure. Now it is as if parenthood confers a special, higher level of citizenship. Our attitude towards children has become so strange and fraught – sentimental one moment, fearful the next – that the act of having them and bringing them up is deemed to confer its own special rights.

Once it was only the more desperate kind of politician who, anxious to establish his probity, sincerity and general seriousness, would mention his little darlings in interviews or parade them before the cameras. Now, any public personality, worth his or her salt, plays the same game. The pages of Hello! and OK! magazines throng with famous mums and dads showing off their kiddies. The christening of a child, once an intimate and private event, is today, as Elizabeth Hurley proved this week, as significant a social occasion as a wedding. It denotes a form of contemporary promotion and must therefore be marked as publicly as possible.

It might be said that the change which overcomes a human when it produces young is timeless and biological. Just as the most amiable Guernsey cow can become a killer when it has a calf, so the mildest and mousiest of mothers or fathers is transformed by parenthood. The timbre of their voices changes, becoming strident and boastful. On the street or in the supermarket, they talk at full volume to their brood as if any adult-child exchange is of interest and amusement to passers-by.

Concerned parents, empowered by the new sanctification of the family, have become ruthless, self-important activists on behalf of their children, or children generally. They organise demonstrations of other parents outside the homes of those they suspect, often wrongly, of being a danger to kids. They attempt to ban books they have decided are inappropriate for young eyes. They cut corners, and even break the law, in their determination to ease the progress of their little ones through the world.

The police now accept that, if there is a conflict between the family and the law, parents will invariably support their child. When, a few years ago, I caught a young teenager who had broken into my car, I suggested that, rather than take him to court, it would make better sense to inform his parents of what their boy was up to. This idea was considered hilariously naive.

It is hardly surprising that, having been raised in a culture where family loyalty is placed above any idea of discipline or social responsibility, children grow up to take the same skewed, relativist view of what is right or wrong as their parents once did.

terblacker@aol.com

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