Raising hell: what do we mean by family values in the twenty-first century?

Harry Brighouse and Adam Swift's Family Values: the Ethics of Parent-Child Relationships, and Tanith Carey's Taming the Tiger Parent.

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Taming the Tiger Parent
Tanith Carey
Constable & Robinson, 224pp, £8.99

Family Values: the Ethics of Parent-Child Relationships
Harry Brighouse and Adam Swift
Princeton University Press, 240pp, £24.95

It can be surprisingly hard to define the precise moral and emotional feel of an era while living through it; it’s probably best to leave that enviable task to the social and intellectual historians. But no one who has raised a family over the past 20 years can fail to have been caught up, in some ways, at some time, in the escalating anxiety concerning our children’s futures.

Here are two very different books that attempt to reflect on and challenge some of our prevailing mores. Contemporary anxiety is a jumble of cause and effect, from the mistaken belief that education has much to do with social mobility (the greater class fluidity of the postwar period resulted more from economic changes than the dubious achievements of a selective education system) to the many ways that increasing economic inequality sorts children earlier and earlier into apparent winners and losers. Panic has become a big part of the problem, making the family even less of a “haven in a heartless world” than it ever was.

Tanith Carey has written a book of warning to overambitious middle-class parents for whom the “holy grail” is a “place at a top university”. Yet her forensic, intelligent approach draws her into wider discussions ranging from comparative education systems to the ways in which schools rack up the pressure in unhelpful ways.

Carey is clear: “tiger parenting” defeats its own purpose. In doing almost anything to help their offspring get ahead, adults risk creating anxious and stressed children who may perform badly, and diminishing their enjoyment of life and relationships. Following heated discussion in this country about apparently more successful school systems abroad, Carey takes a closer look at education in the Far East: in particular, China, with its large classes, rote learning and military-style discipline. Chinese children spend more than a month longer in school than their western counterparts and the school day lasts nine hours, “with breaks for eye massages to reduce eye strain and physical activity to keep their concentration levels high”. When the school day ends, children move on to “cram schools” for further study late into the evening. As a result, many Chinese children are short-sighted and significant numbers of primary-school pupils display symptoms of stress.

Even if we wanted to transplant some of these educational methods to the UK, we might not be able to. As Carey points out, Chinese home and family culture is more educationally intense: “Chinese youngsters are raised with the saying ‘Study hard or you’ll grow up a beggar’ ringing in their ears.” Whatever our social class, few families in the UK subscribe to this kind of pressured scaremongering.

We do things in a distinctly understated or, indeed, underhand way. Carey gives us an amusing flavour of the tiger parenting types who roam contemporary life, from the apparently unruffled “Swan”, who works frantically beneath the surface to get his or her own children ahead, and the “peeping Tom” (or Tomasina) who takes any opportunity to scrutinise other children’s work, to the ghastly “Humblebrag”.Carey believes that, for parents and educators who are now drawing up an alternative, “Whether it’s slow parenting, minimalist parenting – or the more bluntly named calm-the-f***-down parenting – there is recognition that we need to resist the impulse to micromanage.”

Adam Swift’s and Harry Brighouse’s book intersects with Carey’s at odd moments but theirs is a philosophical project to reframe a traditional defence of the family to include new forms of family life and invoke it as a justification for a more broadly egalitarian, redistributive argument. The first four chapters function as a kind of elegant establishing shot, touching on conceptions of the family, the importance of autonomy and the limits of liberalism, before laying out the fresh and more controversial aspects of their thesis.

They argue that although adults have clear responsibilities and rights towards the children in their care, “Parents are currently allowed to do too much for their children, and in too many ways.” In particular, parents have no right to confer competitive material advantage on their offspring, especially through the mechanism of private education – both authors have written widely about education and school choice previously – or through bequeathing property and other significant assets.

More difficult to define, they acknowledge, are the limits that should be placed on adults shaping their children’s values, given that a parent’s ethical, religious and political beliefs are bound to be a major influence in childhood. Here, the (sensible-sounding) qualification is that adults should not exceed the “limits implied by the duty to enable their children to become more autonomous adults”. (It’s interesting to read Ian McEwan’s latest novel, The Children Act, in parallel to this section.)

How might any of this work out in practice? Brighouse and Swift are academics – the former a professor of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; the latter a professor of political theory at Warwick – not politicians; but they do give us a glimpse of one practical consequence of their position when they suggest that property passed down the generations might be allowed and enjoyed for the “sentimental benefit” it bestows but still be subject to 100 per cent taxation. Given middle-class consternation over the comparatively modest mansion tax, one can only imagine the uproar that would follow in the highly unlikely event of such a proposal ever making it into any mainstream party manifesto.

They are clear-sighted about the ways in which poverty impedes any family’s chances of flourishing, although a more explicitly political book on this topic might have expanded on how contemporary middle-class parental strategies are fuelled by growing inequality, the decline of public services and the shredding of more collectivist ideals and hopes. Yet Swift and Brighouse lay out for us why family remains important, and for non-conservative reasons, even as the human impulse to pass on what we have to our offspring – so often justified by an appeal to nature – inevitably confirms and extends wider inequality.

More cheeringly, both books make clear that our children’s futures are as likely to be shaped positively by our personal qualities, including the time we have to give, as our bank balances or social connections. In other words: “Parents, calm the f*** down.”

Melissa Benn’s is the co-author, with Janet Downs, of the new ebook “School Myths – and the Evidence That Blows Them Apart” (Local Schools Network)

Melissa Benn writes for the Guardian and other publications on social issues, particularly education. She is the author of several books of non-fiction and two novels, including One of Us (2008), and reviews books for the New Statesman

This article appears in the 20 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Still hanging

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