Abstracts and papers

Slides from the following presentations can be found via this link (and scrolling through to the relevant paper)

What’s wrong with our parenting culture? Observations on the politicisation of parenting

Associate Professor, Department of Leadership, Foundations, and Policy, Curry School of Education, University of Virginia: ‘What’s wrong with parenting in America? The cultural politics of “Other People’s Kids”’.
Across schools, parenting groups, media, and expert discourse in America today, there is a strong message that some American parents are failing in their jobs as parents. Parenting failure is a key explanation for a range of social problems, from schooling to incarceration rates. However, who gets defined as “failing”, by whom, and what they are defined as failing at are questions enmeshed in an intense cultural politics informed by some fundamental yet often unrecognized tensions over control and freedom, and of the proper disposition of one’s self in relation to others. Applying an anthropological lens to some significant debates over parenting in the U.S., this paper illustrates the extent to which the question of U.S. parental failure is shaped by a cultural politics and geography of social blame, in which there is prevailing emphasis on either excessive or insufficient control (in multiple forms and at different levels–of self, of others, of social relations). Because parenting is therefore discursively constructed as being primarily about getting “control” right, it is easily amenable to political projects of “reform” and “support” that depend on the willingness of parents themselves to “control” their own practices.

Ciara Doyle, lecturer in youth and community studies, University of Greenwich: ‘Who gets a seat on the bus? Or- why don’t parents sit with their children in their laps?’
A tired mother grabs the last seat on the bus and swings her young child into her lap. He sighs contentedly, strokes her face to get her attention, and starts to bombard her with endless questions about his little sister who will be born in a few months. The closeness and affection between mother and child was palpable, and sweet to witness. But it is a bitter sweetness, because with it comes the question – why is this such a rare sight? More often than not, parents will sit a young child in the seat, and stand guard over them, with no parts of their bodies touching. Why are parents so reluctant nowadays to sit with their children on their lap on the bus? This paper will outline some observational data on adults and children interacting on buses, combined with interview data with parents where they discuss their opinions and fears about physical contact with their children. It will explore the way in which parents and other adults interpret and respond to what they perceive to be government policy and question whether policy is responding to or creating a culture where parents fear that physical affection with children may be ‘dirty’. Within this a major question arises of the bleeding of policy between roles – parent, family member, teacher, community, fellow bus passengers, etc. and of the way that the legitimacy of all of these roles becomes potentially restricted.

Zoe Williams, columnist The Guardian: ‘Observations on the politicisation of parenting: the case of food’
Of the great waves of prescriptive, intrusive parenting instructions that are meted out by health strategies and government agencies, I shall be concentrating on food: specifically, breast-feeding, the propaganda surrounding it and its evidence base, the social connotations and consequences of doing it or not doing it, the political implications of having a “policy” in this area which individuals must obey or disobey. From there, I will move on to the Change for Life campaign, in which similar large claims are made for similarly minor (and also contested) dietary changes, in a tone which defines the relationship between government and child-rearing in a particular and peculiar way. I aim to look at the impulses underlying and motivating this area of policy, essaying the hypothesis that much of it is intended to replace the rhetoric of social equality.

Session 2 (concurrent workshops)

Anti-social behaviour and the new parenting culture

Val Gillies, Reader, Families & Social Capital Research Group, London South Bank University: ‘Blaming the parents: school experiences of ‘troublesome’ children and their families’
Recent years have seen the emergence of a new ‘politics of parenting’ in which a range of social ills are attributed to incompetent and irresponsible childrearing. In particular, a perceived rise in youth anti-social behaviour and ill discipline in the classroom is commonly associated with poor parenting.  Policy trends have centred on making parents (predominantly mothers) more accountable for their wayward offspring. The conviction that social disorder must be tackled at the level of the family has driven the introduction of a range of intrusive and authoritarian interventions designed to responsiblize and educate parents. Drawing on ethnographic research with young people at risk of school exclusion, their parents and teachers, this paper explores real lived experience to challenge many of the taken for granted assumptions governing current policy and professional practice.


Rachel Condry, Lecturer in Sociology, University of Surrey: ‘Mother-blame and constructions of maternal (ir)responsibility in mothers of offenders’
This paper draws upon research from two different studies to explore the ways in which mothers of offenders are held to be morally, and in some cases legally, accountable for the criminal or anti-social behaviour of their children. The first study focused on the experiences of relatives of adult offenders convicted of serious crimes such as murder, rape and child sex offences and included long, searching interviews with seventeen mothers of serious offenders. These mothers were made morally accountable and stigmatised, blamed and shamed in very particular ways. The second ongoing study explores the processes and ideas underlying parenting work in youth justice and the experiences of parents and parenting workers. Parents in youth justice are often made legally accountable, through measures such as Parenting Orders, or are aware of the potential to be subject to these measures if they do not comply with ‘voluntary’ interventions. Although presented as gender neutral, it is usually mothers who are the recipients of such measures. In this paper I argue that making mothers legally accountable for criminal acts or the anti-social behaviour of their offspring is underpinned by a notion of the moral failure of these mothers to live up to an idealised construction of motherhood. There are complex intersecting reasons why mothers of offenders are made accountable and a moral discourse about mothering which informs such processes and which needs to be deconstructed and unravelled. Holding mothers to account for the actions of their offspring should be understood in the broader context of the discursive shaping of motherhood in contemporary society. Indeed, responses to mothers of ‘deviant’ offspring can tell us much about the social construction of the role of ‘mother’ and the responsibilities of motherhood which take shape around the censure of mothers who are said to have failed.

Stuart Waiton, Lecturer in Sociology, University of Abertay: ‘Asocial Not Antisocial: Understanding tensions between the generations’

The tensions that exist between adults and young people are often discussed within the rubric of antisocial behaviour. This myopic focus on this one aspect of the tensions between the generations however obscures more than it reveals about difficulties that adults face when dealing with children and young people. Rather, the question of leadership, of adult authority, and of the crucial role adults play in the socialisation of the young needs to be explored more generally. Unfortunately, despite some recognition of this problem the ASBO and Respect agenda reinforces rather than challenges the wider underlying problem, which is that we live in an increasingly asocial society. This paper will attempt to explore this idea and highlight the mechanism through which today’s adults and young people are being further disconnected from one another.


Childcare, trust and intensive parenting

Pat Sikes, Professor in Qualitative Inquiry, University of Sheffield. ‘Problems with men and ‘parenting’’
In recent years there have been numerous calls for more men to become more engaged in various child caring roles – to provide necessary male role models in families, foster families, nurseries and primary schools. While ‘new man’ can be spotted in some family settings, in most other settings confirmed sightings remain unusual, and when he is spotted he puts himself at considerable risk. He is likely to be considered either a wimp or a likely paedophile, the former being far preferable, because when the latter label is applied he will live in perpetual fear of allegation. This fear should not be taken lightly as it has a fair chance of being realised and, when it is, the consequences are severe. There are some who argue that the call for men to be more involved with children is misplaced, as there is as much variation within genders as between them, and others who argue that given the glass ceiling for women in many jobs, keeping child care as women’s work is no bad thing – but in fact this status quo is bad for all of us. Children are brought up to believe caring men to be wimps or likely paedophiles and are therefore primed to repeat the same patterns both within and outside their families; for women, teaching and caring for young children is rendered unskilled work, as it is ‘feminised’ along with other female dominated occupations (nursing), so women remain entrapped in the ‘caring’ sweatshop, with its corresponding low pay and status. Meanwhile female violence and abuse is more likely to remain hidden, as the reverse side of the coin to ‘caring man = bad’ is ‘caring woman = good’ – further accentuating the distorted gender models prevalent in society. Finally, as men are only deemed suitable to ‘care’ if displaying wimpish characteristics, and yet may still be treated as a likely sexual predator or prone to violence, they are unlikely to regard working with children as an attractive career. Therefore, calls for men to join women in these various roles are futile; the risks and prejudices and negative consequences are real, and should be acknowledged and dealt with. This presentation will offer a few tentative suggestions.

Carol Vincent, Professor of Education, Institute of Education:
‘’I’m the mum. I don’t leave her’: Choosing care and education settings’
In this paper I report on findings from several recent London-based qualitative research projects with which I have been involved. The projects broadly explore the way in which parents choose and interact with early years carers and care settings, as well as schools and teachers. The paper has three main sections. First, I point briefly to the pervasiveness of the ideology of ‘intensive mothering’ which, as the title suggests, delivers fundamental responsibility for the child to the mother. In the second and third sections, I consider social class and ethnic differences between the families who participated in the projects. I discuss the extent to which their social class positioning and ethnic identity affect the resources and attitudes they bring to bear on the choice-making process, and also the degree of trust in which they hold staff thereafter.


The rise of ‘parenting science’

Stuart Derbyshire, Senior Lecturer, School of Psychology, University of Birmingham: ‘Growing pains in the brain’
Recent commentary on parenting has concentrated on the importance of the first three years with a particular emphasis on neuroscience. It is suggested that between 0 and 3 years the infant brain develops the capacity for empathy and concern but stress, abuse, deprivation, poor parenting, poverty or some combination of those and similar factors can prevent this development. More worryingly, once prevented, there is no means to later learn empathy and concern because of permanent changes in brain organization and brain chemistry. The evidence linking negative childhood circumstances with permanent changes in brain function, however, is dubious. Extreme abuse and deprivation can certainly affect brain development, and cause behavioural problems, but there is little evidence that milder neglect can have negative consequences on the brain or behaviour. There is also no evidence that the brain areas involved in empathy and concern, for example, become fixed during the first three years and much evidence that the brain retains plasticity throughout life. But even if plasticity is reduced after the first three years it is highly uncertain what implications follow; the techniques of neuroscience and the results that neuroscience can provide are simply too vague and uncertain to justify any commentary on what parents should and should not do. This uncertainty is often hidden behind ‘common sense’ recommendations from brain research proponents that typically reflect contemporary beliefs regarding the peculiar vulnerability of children and the importance of parents in nurturing and protecting their fragile offspring. Neuroscience is not driving changes in parental education and childcare policies so much as being used to justify relatively new beliefs about the vulnerability of children and the importance of an emotionally enriched environment.

Nancy McDermott, New York based writer and mother, chair of the advisory board of Park Slope Parents: ‘To Fire Their Neurons: How Neuroscience is Shaping Early Childhood Education Policy in the United States’
This paper will examine how theories about infant brain development are influencing Early Childhood Education policy in the United States, particularly in relation to “at risk” populations.  I will specifically look at Head Start Programs and the growth of so-called “baby colleges” in low income communities. I will argue that the emphasis on neuro-science has “scientized” the discussion of early childhood education and shifted the focus from children themselves to parent/child interactions, promoting some while attempting to mitigate the impact of others. I will draw out some of the implications this has for education policy in the US and look at how it could influence similar discussions in the UK.


Charlotte Faircloth, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge ‘‘What science says is best’: Full-term breastfeeding, attachment parenting and identity work’
Based on research in London and Paris with mothers from local La Leche League groups (the foremost international breastfeeding support organisation) this paper explores the narratives of women who choose to breastfeed ‘to full term’ (also known as ‘extended breastfeeding’) as part of a philosophy of ‘attachment parenting’ (a philosophy which endorses long-term mother-child proximity). Full-term breastfeeding is understood to fulfil a blueprint for hominid behaviour, derived from archaeological and anthropological evidence of both primates and ‘primitives’. Since full-term breastfeeding goes against social convention, yet occurs in a climate of ‘intensive motherhood’ (Hays, 1996), the paper pays close attention to the strategies of rationalisation employed by these ‘alternative’ mothers, and the identity work they undertake. One of the most prominent ‘accountability strategies’ used by this group of mothers is recourse to scientific evidence, both about the nutritional benefits of full-term breastfeeding and about the broader neurological, cognitive and developmental benefits of attachment parenting for their children. Women utilise ‘science’ when they talk about their decision to breastfeed long-term, since it serves as a rationale par excellence, placing these non-conventional parenting practices beyond debate. The paper argues, however, that ‘science’ subtly blurs the lines between the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’, having the potential to eclipse other aspects of the parenting relationship.

Teenage Parenting – What’s the Problem?

Simon Duncan, Professor of Comparative Social Policy, University of Bradford: ‘Teenage Pregnancy and Teenage Parenting: Not a Problem?’
Public discourse in Britain sees teenage motherhood as a pernicious social problem where mothers, their children and society generally will all suffer.  Fathers are seen as feckless. This is reflected in New Labour’s teenage pregnancy strategy, which understands teenage parents as victims of ignorance, mis-information, and low expectations.  But a review of the research evidence finds that the age at which pregnancy occurs has little effect on social outcomes. Many teenage mothers describe how motherhood makes them feel stronger and marks a change for the better. Many fathers seek to remain connected with their children. For both, parenting seems to provide an impetus to take up education, training and employment. Teenage parenting may be more of an opportunity than a catastrophe, and often makes sense in the life worlds inhabited by young mothers. The paper concludes that current policy towards teenage parenting in Britain may be making a ‘rationality mistake’.

Ros Edwards, Professor of Social Policy, London South Bank University: ‘Why the Gulf Between Experience, Evidence and Policy?’
Policy continues to fix on teenage pregnancy as a disaster, and young mothers and fathers as people who both have and are problems, despite the contrary research evidence on outcomes and accounts from young parents themselves.  In this presentation I will attempt to explain this gulf between experience, evidence and policy.  I will argue that teenage parents are a policy preoccupation because they symbolically disrupt the regulation represented by the boundaries of adulthood and childhood, threatening the national future.  I will consider why the research evidence on teenage mothers and fathers is ignored in policymaking.  In particular I will focus on policymakers’ reliance on economic rationality criteria to understand human motivation and action, and their location in self-reinforcing epistemic communities.  The consequence is that policies aimed at teenage mothers and fathers are misdirected and inappropriate.

Claire Alexander, Reader, Department of Sociology, London School of Economics: ‘Teenage Pregnancy and Parenting: what does the research tell us?’
Drawing on the empirical chapters of the recent co-edited book Teenage Parenting: What’s the Problem?, this presentation outlines some of the key common findings arising from research on the attitudes and experiences of teenage parents. The primary perspective is one that offers challenges to the problem-oriented perspective that dominates policy on this issue, although the research also points to the diversity and complexity of this phenomenon.


Jan Macvarish, Research Associate, Centre for Health Services Studies, University of Kent: ‘Understanding Teenage Parenthood in the Contemporary Culture of Parenting’
Since the late 1990s, the teenage mother has come to fore as the iconic ‘dysfunctional parent’ in policy and cultural discourse. She is presumed to be ‘vulnerable’ and in need of ‘support’ and her child’s future is portrayed as bleak unless ‘intensive interventions’ are offered and taken up. This paper will explore how the contemporary construction of teenage parenthood reflects wider anxieties about parent-child relationships but also constitutes an area where experimental social policy is argued for and enacted. It will be argued that the growing field of ‘parenting culture studies’ offers a rich resource of theory and description through which to interpret the contemporary discussion of teenage parenthood.

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