Seminar 3

Child-rearing in a risk society

Aston University
September 16 and 17, 2009


Abstracts and papers

Seminar summary

Presentation by Jennie Bristow, to launch her book ‘Standing up to Supernanny’ 

Seminar theme:

‘[I]ncreasingly, morality has come to function through proxies, not in its own voice, but in and through other discursive forms, the two most important and closely related being the discourses of ‘harm’ and ‘risk’…In an epoch in which overt moralization runs the risk of being greeted with some suspicion, risks are frequently posed in such a way as to downplay a moral dimension.’

Alan Hunt, ‘Risk and Moralization in Everyday Life’. In Erickson, R.V. and Doyle, A.Risk and Morality. University of Toronto Press Incorporated, Toronto, Canada 2003:182

The concept ‘risk society’ has become pre-eminent for sociological accounts of the contemporary world. Conceptualisations of risk are varied, but among them is the prescient observation, above, that risk consciousness has gained ground as part of a process of demoralisation; the ubiquitous imperative to minimise risk, maximise safety and avoid harm has come to the fore through a process in which more overt moral imperatives have receded.

Given the importance of the family historically as a locus for moralisation and moral panic, family life is an important subject for inquiry about the dynamics of risk society. The approach set out above suggests we might consider whether traditional moral concerns about the ‘ideal family’ and the ‘good parent’ been supplanted to a significant degree by those focused around concerns about risk and harm to children. In turn, this poses questions about the everyday conduct of family life. It might be expected that, given the emotional power of the parent-child bond, concerns about the safety of children would have a special purchase in reshaping everyday conduct when it comes to family life. So how do parents respond to a moral imperative to avoid risk and minimise harm to children? What child-rearing strategies do people develop in an age of hyper-concern about issues from children’s diet, watching TV and playing video games, to the health behaviour of pregnant women and new mothers? How is the identity of parents influenced by risk consciousness?

The aim of this seminar is, in this context, to place family life, and parent-child relations in particular, at the centre of analysis of risk society. It will explicitly seek to develop an understanding of the link between contemporary parenting culture and risk consciousness. In doing so, the seminar will highlight and further interrogate the following insights of existing scholarship in this area:

The notion that contemporary ideas about parent-child relationships play a central role in the development of risk society

Some scholarship has sought to situate contemporary parenting culture as central to risk society. The sociologist Frank Furedi has suggested that a central part of risk consciousness is an assumption of vulnerability that has come to dominate
perceptions of people in general. He argued that the ever widening category of people deemed ‘at risk’ is testament to this cultural turn, and according to this analysis, nowhere is this assumption more marked than for children. Furedi thus argued in 2001 in his Paranoid Parenting that a key concept through which a ‘sense of vulnerability’ is given definition is that of children at risk. He suggested:

‘Children at risk’ is an expression that we think we understand intuitively even though it is rarely defined. When reporters allude to a child at risk we rarely ask the obvious question, ‘at risk of what?’ Just being ‘at risk’ is sufficient to evoke a sense of permanent danger. We don’t ask the question ‘at risk of what?’ because we already suspect that the reply would be ‘at risk of everything’.

In tandem with the notion of vulnerable child has emerged that of the ‘parent as God’ argued Furedi. The parent has come to be viewed as, by far, the most powerful influence over the development of the child, and in this context managing and minimising risk emerges as central to the role of the parent. The overall effect of risk consciousness for parent-child relations is as follows:

By grossly underestimating the resilience of children [culture] intensifies parental anxiety and encourages excessive interference in children’s lives; by grossly exaggerating the degree of parental intervention required to ensure normal development [culture] makes the task of being a parent appear impossibly burdensome.

How has the idea of the ‘child at risk’ developed since these comments were made in 2001? How far have our laws, policies and institutions been modified in response to the power of assumptions about the vulnerability of children? What are the effects of these developments for parental experience and for wider relations between generations and in communities?

The idea that motherhood and maternal identity in particular has come to be increasingly influenced by claims about risk, and that, in turn, the construction of the ‘good mother’ has become closely linked to the development of rules that demand risk avoidance.

Sociologist Elizabeth Murphy has argued that we live in age where individuals are continually encouraged to minimise risk-taking behaviour. Following Mary Douglas, she additionally suggests, however, that actions that are considered risky foranother person have attained special significance. They even constitute the contemporary equivalent of sinful behaviour, she suggests, with the person put ‘at risk’ as ‘sinned against’. Her analysis is that this form of moralisation has become perhaps most influential of all in relation to ideas about motherhood. Using the example of feeding babies, she thus argues that risk assessment and avoidance have, in general, ‘been elevated to the status of moral obligations’, but when it comes to infant feeding, ‘this obligation is intensified by the intersection of the discourse of risk with that of motherhood’. Others such as North American scholar Rebecca Kukla have also compellingly argued that the obligations of motherhood have been (unhelpfully) reconfigured in this vein.

What are the effects of risk consciousness for maternal experience? What does this analysis of motherhood suggest about contemporary constructions of fatherhood?

The nature of the apparent turn against risk aversion, as parents become the target of criticism for being overprotective, and raising ‘cotton wool kids’.

Recent months have seen something of an avalanche of statements issued by children’s charities, task forces, and government ministers, drawing attention to the problem of ‘cotton wool kids’. Today’s children, it is argued, are being denied their right to play unsupervised, or indeed go outside much at all. Children are now thus just as likely to be represented as victims of their parents’ overcautious attitudes. Parental risk aversion, it seems, is now considered as much a problem as parents failing to recognise the damage they do by spending too little time with their children or throwing caution to the wind by neglecting to take seriously official advice on matters such as diet. And some research detects that parents are responding to accusations that they are over-protective; parental worries about being a over-anxious parent have, it seems, become another part of risk consciousness. According to Psychologist Helene Guldberg however, there is no reason to consider this development as a genuine counter to a culture of ‘paranoid parenting’.

Is this assessment correct? How should official incitement to parents to take risks be understood? What is the best way to counter the problem of ‘cotton wool kids’?

The identification of adult solidarity and adult authority as primary casualties of risk society.

Through her work on touch, social work academic Heather Piper has drawn attention to the way that adults feel increasingly unsure about how to relate to children. Indeed they feel they are not trusted to have physical contact with children. According to Piper, ‘no touch’ policies in educational settings have arisen because of an overblown anxiety about child abuse combined with a risk-averse outlook, which often finds expression in the fear of being sued. In her work (with Stronach) Don’t Touch! The educational story of a panic she explains how this has led to an environment in which ‘the touching of children in professional settings [has] increasingly stopped being relaxed, or instinctive, or primarily concerned with responding to the needs of the child’ – rather, it is becoming ‘a self-conscious negative act, requiring a mind-body split for both children and adults, the latter being controlled more by fear than a commitment to caring.’

From their study of the national vetting scheme (the use of CRB checks to vet growing numbers of adults who have contact with children) sociologist Frank Furedi and journalist Jennie Bristow similarly conclude that one of the main problems that has developed in risk society is a distancing of adults in general from the lives of children, as adults no longer assume they are trusted to care for children. They argue, in their Licensed to Hug:

…the single most important problem that needs to be addressed is how society can affirm and support the exercise of adult authority through acts of solidarity and collaboration. The growing distancing of generational encounters can only be fixed through providing adults with greater opportunity to interact with children. Adults need to be encouraged to exercise their responsibility towards the guiding and socialising of young people. That means that we need to question and challenge cultural assumptions that automatically throw suspicion on the exercise of adult authority.

How might we analyse and understand the relation between risk society and trust relations between generations? What is the effect of an apparent erosion of general adult involvement in the socialisation of children for parental experience?

The seminar is organised over two days. The first day will consider the nature of the relation between risk society and parenting culture, and the second day will focus specifically on motherhood and mothering.

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