Background to the event

Background to the event

One of the main insights informing the work of the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies is that ‘parenting’ is not simply another word for raising children. Rather, the transformation of the noun ‘parent’ into the verb ‘parenting’ has taken place through a socio-cultural process comprising, among others, the following features:

– The construction of the parent as ‘God like’, with what parents do represented as determining an individual child’s development, and also as the underlying cause of a wide range of social problems

– The construction of children, in general, as ‘vulnerable’ and so far more sensitive than was previously considered to be the case to risks impacting on physical and emotional development

– The growing validation of the idea that parents need to be trained in effective ways of managing and minimising the manifold risks to the child; the parent is thus viewed as being all-powerful but at the same time as unable to properly exercise power without expert guidance

– The extension of ‘parenting’ in this form backwards into pregnancy, and even into pre-pregnancy

– The development of growing gender-neutrality in this area as ‘fathering’ is more and more conceptualised as both a highly important but also problematic activity

– The emergence of ‘parenting’ as a policy problem and the concomitant emergence of an explicit family/parenting policy agenda in Britain, and elsewhere

– The increasing propensity to represent good parenting as a skill-set that can be both taught and learned through reference to scientific evidence about how to parent well

Over recent years, PCS has hosted a series of events and conducted and disseminated research that explores these features of contemporary parenting culture. We have also sought to encourage discussion that situates developments in British society in relation to those in other countries, and have devoted energy to exploring the ways in which parents relate to socio-cultural and policy norms regarding ‘parenting’ as they rear their children. Through our deliberations, our attention has increasingly been drawn to the way that parenting is now being ‘scientised’ in a new way. In almost every topic we have discussed or area we have recently considered we have been struck by the presence of claims suggesting that science, in particular neuroscience, prove that a particular parenting style is superior and can lead to better children and a better society. It is in this light that we aim over the coming months to initiate a socio-cultural enquiry into ‘parenting science’. This will build on a discussion called ‘The rise of ‘parenting science’’’ held in February 2010 as part of our ESRC-seminar series ‘Changing Parenting Culture’. The abstract for that panel ran as follows:

In the wake of news in September 2009 that in Edlington, Yorkshire, two boys had horrifically tortured and injured two others, Iain Duncan Smith, former Conservative leader, and head of the think tank, the Centre for Social Justice called for greater levels of ‘early intervention’ in problem families. “These children are conditioned to become violent by their family life,” he said. Drawing on studies linking early abuse with limited brain development he said that “we need to intervene when the children are very, very young to break the cycle.” While it is true that extreme abuse can damage children’s development, the evidence that it is family life in general that conditions behaviour is limited. Nevertheless, the same logic is being rolled out to all parents, generally under the guise of ‘scientific research’. Sue Gerhardt’s book, ‘Why Love Matters: How affection shapes a baby’s brain’, for example, draws on a wealth of psychological and neuroscientific research to remind parents of the need for ‘attentive’ parenting: ‘ When parents respond to the baby’s signals, they are participating in many important biological processes. They are helping the baby’s nervous system to mature in such a way that it does not get overstressed. They are helping the bioamine pathways to be set at a moderate level. They are helping to build up the prefrontal cortex and the child’s capacity to hold information in mind, to reflect on feeling, to restrain impulses, that will be a vital part of his or her future capacity to behave socially’ (2004: 210). This workshop will explore this recent ’scientisation’ of parenting and examine the relationship between science research and wider public advocacy and policy formation regarding ‘parenting’.

Presentations at that panel considered and criticised the way that evidence regarding the brain development of Romanian orphans has come to be misused and attained influence in discussions of the development of all children; offered alternative explanations for how to understand the development of emotion and human consciousness; looked at the origins of programmes in the US that rely heavily of claims about children’s brains, and explored the implications of the idea associated with these programmes that people are ‘hardwired’ and ‘the damage is done’ in the early years; and considered how ideas about babies brains now influence breast-feeding advocacy and the claim made for the superiority of extended breastfeeding that results.

Monitoring Parents: Science, evidence, experts and the new parenting culture aims to build on and extend the discussion at the 2010 event.  We are also working through plans for a study to look at the way claims about neuroscience are coming to influence policy agendas in various areas. We would welcome more ideas and collaborators on this project. For a look at the sort of argument that is now being made in policy circles, the Introduction and Chapter 2 of this document: ‘Early Intervention: Good Parents, Great Kids, Better Citizens’ By Graham Allen MP and Rt Hon Iain Duncan Smith MP, published by the think tank the centre for Social Justice is of interest.

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