Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Parenting Wars: The Multimillion-Pound Industry Devoted to Telling You How to Raise Your Child

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Parenting Wars: The Multimillion-Pound Industry Devoted to Telling You How to Raise Your Child

Article excerpt

Recently I embarked on a long-overdue purge of my bookshelves. In the several dozen bin bags that made their way to the Oxfam bookshop (where the expressions of the staff slowly morphed from pleased gratitude, on my first visit, to unconcealed dread by the fifth) were two copies of the Communist Manifesto (two?); a formidable collection of works by Foucault, Sarraute, Perec and Que-neau (I suppose I must once have read them--bookmarking postcards fell out of some of them--but if I did, no trace of the experience has remained); and all my parenting books. Penelope Leach's Baby and Child, Steve Biddulph's Raising Boys and The Secret of Happy Children, Kate Figes on The Terrible Teens--none of them, I realised, had been purchased by me: all had been acquired for some exercise in journalism--reviewing or interviewing, but never for private reading.

I don't know what made me think I could raise a child without an instruction manual, especially as I was the single mother of a boy, with no partner or brothers to consult about the mysteries of maleness. Sheer wilfulness, I suppose (and a certain bruised desire to avoid books that wrote of families as consisting of a child with two parents who were, in the days when I was doing my child-rearing, invariably assumed to be a mummy and a daddy). No doubt I should have made a better fist of it if I had been able to embrace Leach and Biddulph as my mentors, but my son is 21 now, and we are far into the territory for which no self-help books on parent/child relationships exist (unless you count D H Lawrence's Sons and Lovers, as a handy guide on what not to do).

As I began to inhabit my new identity as a mother and a lone parent, bringing up my child felt like an experience too personal and intimate to be trimmed to a template provided by experts. I was keen on babies and small children, and imagined that maternal instinct would cover the basics adequately. In this, I was faithfully replicating my own upbringing. My mother owned a copy of Dr Spock's Baby and Child Care, but it hadn't the air of a book that had been consulted frequently (though oddly enough I read it avidly as a child-so perhaps my son was, by default, a Spock baby).

My mother's maternal style must in turn have been modelled on her childhood, though my maternal grandmother was the youngest of a family of 13, so there would have been lots of people to offer advice on teething and potty training, a resource that my mother, an only child, and I, the first of my close friends to have a baby, both lacked.

I don't think that any of the women in my family took a conceptual or political view of child-rearing or parenthood. We were too absorbed by the day-to-day business of reading stories and wiping bottoms to find time to analyse what we were about. (I was the only one of us to combine work with motherhood throughout my son's childhood, and that wasn't a considered decision: as a lone parent, I had no choice.)

In my childhood - and, I think, my mother's - the visionary thinking came from my grandfather, who had spent his infancy and early childhood in the St Pancras workhouse and had, not coincidentally, strong views about the necessity for setting life goals and working towards them, preferably by getting an excellent education.

Even 20 years ago, my unprofessional attitude to bringing up a child was anachronistic; these days I suspect it would be regarded as borderline negligent. Mine was certainly the last generation in which one could allow oneself to muddle along without the assistance of the experts, treating parenthood as though it were analogous to friendship-a relationship that would grow and flourish of its own accord.

I might have done my best to ignore the fact, but as a single parent I was a fragmentary factor in what has grown into an urgent social crisis around the issues of childhood and family. If ever there was a time when one could raise children unselfconsciously, it is long past. …

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