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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.

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

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.