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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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.