Overparenting: How does Claire Perry know if we're “smothering our children”?

The Conservative MP’s concerns only represent one experience of parenting – her own.

Claire Perry, the Prime Minister’s “adviser on the Commercialisation and Sexualisation of Childhood”, worries that we’re smothering our children. On the plus side, she doesn’t mean literally (phew!). She means metaphorically, in the way that most people do when they trot out the same old line on how the younger generation’s being spoilt rotten and not learning to be independent blah blah blah. I don’t blame her for doing it. It’s always a useful argument to bring to the table. On the one hand it’s a lovely, passive means of vilifying young people who don’t have any opportunity to demonstrate their worth anyhow (“oh, you’re useless, you lot, but we’re not blaming you for this”); on the other you get to hold your own generation responsible for economic and social decline while appearing benevolent (“you’ve totally messed up, but we know you didn’t mean to; you did it because you care”). Genuis! Everyone’s on the wrong track except Claire Perry. And who am I to question it? Unlike Perry, I don’t have a geography degree and a previous career in finance, so I’m hardly parenting guru material.

To be fair to Perry, she is speaking from personal experience of parenting (i.e. having spent time as a stay-at-home mother), in rather the same way that Michael Gove speaks from personal experience of education (i.e. having gone to a particular school). Perry and Gove’s recommendations would probably seem reasonable if everyone were just like Perry and Gove, children included (except then we’d have no one to blame when things were still going wrong). But the fact is, we’re not all like them anyhow, and yet they’re making decisions which affect our children’s lives on this very basis. To know what’s good for people surely requires one to have an interest in people, and not just in the moral messages one has constructed from one’s own life story.

Perry took a seven-year career break to care for her children and hence, rather generously, counts her past self as one of the main offenders when it comes to mollycoddling:

A lot of it is women who, because it is difficult to get on, subjugate their own ambition into their kids. That makes it harder when they get to university and realise they haven't got a mother to help them with their homework, watching their every move.

"We've all done it. Now, I just can't, so I don't, and I think they're probably better off as a result. Good parenting isn't just about making sure they come top in maths but all the difficult stuff too. If they don't learn the limits from us, who will tell them?

It’s hard to miss the shift between the specific (“women who …”) to the global (“we’ve all done it”). No, Claire, we haven’t, or rather, if we have, it’s been in ways that are specific to the conditions and limitations of our own lives. Who are you to judge with such sweeping statements as this? What of all the women who don’t have the luxury of ambition? Who struggle to manage their time, money and expectations alongside those of their children? What of parents for whom “the difficult stuff” isn’t an optional extra once you’ve stopped fussing over equations? What pearls of wisdom do you have to offer them? 

I’m going to be hypocritical here and use a lesson learned from my own life. Except – except! – the lesson is that you just can’t use what’s happened in your own life to judge other parents (unless that lesson is just specific to me? Hell, I don’t know, but anyhow, I’m using it). I’ve spent practically my whole life – from way back, long before I had children – worrying about “overparenting”. One of my responses to having a close relative who suffers from a disability has been to panic about independence and co-dependence. I’ve spent years thinking “if only X didn’t do everything for Y, then Y would be able to do so much more”. That’s because I’m judgmental and convinced I’d do so much better, only deep down, I know it’s not true. X might be doing so much because quite frankly, his or her life is hard and it’s easier to give in and do too much than it is to promote the wondrous “independence” that makes life so much easier, if not for the individuals concerned, then for external observers. Y might not be as capable as he or she appears to those who aren’t there every day. Perhaps, on a very personal level, I’m just so scared of having to take on X’s role in future, I pretend there’s no space to be filled (rather like a government minister who pretends young people don’t need support, they just need to stand on their own two feet). Each time a parent does “too much” there are so many extra conditions which other people don’t see that it’s impossible to say “you could do it better”. And here I’m talking about fairly extreme levels of “too much”. Helping with homework? For god’s sake, this isn’t ruining your child’s chance to be independent (suggesting that under-25s live with their parents while working in return for JSA – now, that would be a different matter).

Personally, I have no idea whether I do too much or too little for my children. Probably a bit of both, so I’m either destroying them twice over or achieving a perfect balance. There are ways in which I’d like them to be like me (like me, that is, but with more money – professional footballers with arts PhDs on the side is the direction in which I’m pushing them). But is that “subjugating [my] own ambition into [my] kids” (whatever that means) or just me being your average narcissistic parent, regardless of gender or past experience? After all, like the vast majority of parents, whether they’re in paid work or not, I didn’t have a high-powered career to put on hold to begin with. Alas, you can’t blame these frustrated career women for everything, and it’s about time politicians stopped thinking only of themselves each time they’re accusing others of self-obsession and an inability to move on. 

 

You can't use lessons from your own life to judge other parents. Photograph: Stephanski on Flickr, via Creative Commons

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.