The only good parent is a wealthy one

Increasingly, just as poverty itself is linked to ignorance or moral failings, poor parenting is associated with being poor.

You could be forgiven for thinking there’s never been a better time to be growing up in poverty. Sure, things might look bad now but you’ll be okay. A crack team of financial and moral superiors have got your back. Whether it’s chips in front of a massive fucking telly or your rubbish teachers at your rubbish school, your betters are out there, fighting the good fight and defeating your foes.

Last week, in response to calls for children’s schooling to start later, Education Minister Elizabeth Truss was out on the frontline, reminding the experts to set aside their lefty bigotry/extensive research and just think of the children. In a piece for the Telegraph she compared disagreement with Conservative policy on early years education to simply not caring about “our poorest children”. The fact is, liberal airy-fairyness might be alright for some, butit’s letting down the most vulnerable amongst us:

“Kids from leafy suburbs might get a steady stream of educational activities in their early years. Or if they don’t, they might be able to cash in their parents’ connections and wealth later in life. Not everyone is so lucky. If education starts later, the children that need it most are the ones that lose out.”

See that, experts? See what you’ve done? Too busy thinking about children to remember that poor children are a special subset. They don’t get the same things rich children do. Without Truss-led intervention, they’re stuffed.

If Truss, Gove et al wish to suggest that education creates opportunity for the most disadvantaged, then I’d agree. I suspect many of those people in schools (formerly known as teachers) would. Nevertheless, there’s something disturbing about the way this is positioned. As the gap between rich and poor widens, it’s not enough to present sharp-elbowed parents in “leafy suburbs” with their “connections and wealth” as the only obstacles  standing in the way of the less well-off.  As long as we have a government which vilifies those without money (now no longer paid too little but simply not working enough) its members cannot claim to have the interests of such people’s offspring at heart.

Intervention to support poor children should not involve the sidelining of their parents. Increasingly, just as poverty itself is linked to ignorance or moral failings, poor parenting is associated with being poor. It becomes a kind of class colonialism. Truss might not literally propose taking disadvantaged children from their lacklustre parents, but the intimation is that only more time in the hands of the state can save them from their bitter destiny. The relationship between “the disadvantaged” and “the lucky” is not examined in any depth: it just is. And yet without a holistic approach to challenging inequality -- one that looks not just at education and nutrition, but at the economic and mental wellbeing of all people at all ages --- a focus on the children is a figleaf.

In discussions of child welfare no agency is accorded to parents who are not middle-class. “Parenting issues” – worrying about school places, homework, bullying, a healthy diet, future career – are seen as luxuries not everyone can afford. The poor, it seems, can’t worry about their children for themselves. They’re too busy being poor, therefore we need millionaire chefs and grammar-obsessed government ministers to take charge. It’s not that the solutions they offer are wrong in themselves, but within a broader context of inequality their overall impact can be anything but helpful.

I am not sure at what age a child becomes morally responsible for his or her privilege or lack of it. It’s not clear when “disadvantage” becomes “fecklessness”. We just know that one day it will. In the meantime, poverty starts to be seen as something impressed upon an individual by his or her carers.

The narrative of liberation through education is seductive, but it’s inadequate. It creates a world in which poor children become self-contained vessels into which politicians pour all of their equality rhetoric. Everyone knows that one day, these little bundles of potential will morph into devalued workers, parents and carers. They’ll have to stand aside for another generation of “potentially not poor” youngsters to take their place because no one with actual privilege is prepared to give an inch.

You cannot help children to thrive if you are simultaneously crushing the adults closest to them. The impact of low pay, benefit cuts, outsourcing and morale-crushing exclusion is not localised. Education should be a right, not a weak corrective for more extensive wrongs.

All parents should be in a position to exert a positive influence over their children’s lives. If poorer parents have been priced out of granting their children opportunities which can only be bought, we surely need to question not the parents, but how opportunity itself is functioning.

George Osborne visits a nursery school. Image: Getty

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

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I am special and I am worthless: inside the mind of a narcissist

There's been a lot of discussion about narcissists this week. But what does the term actually mean?

Since the rise of Donald Trump, the term “narcissistic” has been cropping up with great regularity in certain sections of the media, including the pages of this journal. I wouldn’t want to comment about an individual I’ve never met, but I thought it would be interesting to look at the troubling psychological health problem of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).

People with NPD (which is estimated to affect about 1 per cent of the population) have a characteristic set of personality traits. First, they have a deeply held sense of specialness and entitlement. Male NPD sufferers frequently present as highly egotistical, with an unshakeable sense of their superiority and importance; female sufferers commonly present as eternal victims on whom the world repeatedly inflicts terrible injustices. In both cases, the affected person believes he or she is deserving of privileged treatment, and expects it as a right from those around them.

Second, NPD sufferers have little or no capacity for empathy, and usually relate to other people as objects (as opposed to thinking, feeling beings) whose sole function is to meet the narcissist’s need for special treatment and admiration – known as “supply”. In order to recruit supply, NPD sufferers become highly skilled at manipulating people’s perceptions of them, acting out what is called a “false self” – the glittering high achiever, the indefatigable do-gooder, the pitiable victim.

The third characteristic is termed “splitting”, where the world is experienced in terms of two rigid categories – either Good or Bad – with no areas of grey. As long as others are meeting the narcissist’s need for supply, they are Good, and they find themselves idealised and showered with reciprocal positive affirmation – a process called “love-bombing”. However, if someone criticises or questions the narcissist’s false self, that person becomes Bad, and is subjected to implacable hostility.

It is not known for certain what triggers the disorder. There is likely to be a genetic component, but in many cases early life experiences are the primary cause. Narcissism is a natural phase of child development (as the parents of many teenagers will testify) and its persistence as adult NPD frequently reflects chronic trauma during childhood. Paradoxically for a condition that often manifests as apparent egotism, all NPD sufferers have virtually non-existent self-esteem. This may arise from ongoing emotional neglect on the part of parents or caregivers, or from sustained psychological or sexual abuse.

The common factor is a failure in the development of a healthy sense of self-worth. It is likely that narcissism becomes entrenched as a defence against the deep-seated shame associated with these experiences of being unworthy and valueless.

When surrounded by supply, the NPD sufferer can anaesthetise this horrible sense of shame with the waves of positive regard washing over them. Equally, when another person destabilises that supply (by criticising or questioning the narcissist’s false self) this is highly threatening, and the NPD sufferer will go to practically any lengths to prevent a destabiliser adversely influencing other people’s perceptions of the narcissist.

One of the many tragic aspects of NPD is the invariable lack of insight. A narcissist’s experience of the world is essentially: “I am special; some people love me for this, and are Good; some people hate me for it, and are Bad.” If people with NPD do present to health services, it is usually because of the negative impacts Bad people are having on their life, rather than because they are able to recognise that they have a psychological health problem.

Far more commonly, health professionals end up helping those who have had the misfortune to enter into a supply relationship with an NPD sufferer. Narcissism is one of the most frequent factors in intimate partner and child abuse, as well as workplace bullying. The narcissist depends on the positive affirmation of others to neutralise their own sense of unworthiness. They use others to shore themselves up, and lash out at those who threaten this precarious balance. And they leave a trail of damaged people in their wake. 

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times