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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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit