Other Articles Jan 23 2007

Parents on the naughty step

Late last year the Family and Parenting Institute, a charity which I chair, commissioned a poll  to examine what impact the current focus on parenting in the print and broadcast media was having on parents.

It was a subject staff and trustees of the charity had been discussing for some time – the inevitable consequence of an explosion of reality TV s programmes like Supernanny, The House of Tiny Tearaways, Brat Camp and Honey we’re Killing the Kids  and the print coverage that followed in their wake.

The results of the survey were fairly clear cut. Television programmes about parenting have a huge reach. Most parents of children under 16 have watched at least one such programme and more than three quarters said they found a ‘parenting’ technique that was helpful to them as a result. The poll also showed a noticeable decline in the number of parents who felt that smacking was the best way to teach their children right from wrong.

The consequent media coverage was anything but straightforward however. Was the Institute ticking off the broadcasters? Were we taking parents to task for not being good enough or daring to ask for help?  Were we daring to criticise the ‘naughty step’, a vital accessory in Supernanny Jo Frost’s armoury which is now on sale to parents for under £20 online? Worst of all, were we suggesting that parents shouldn’t be allowed to smack their children?

For me personally the saga ended with an almost surreal exchange on the Today programme, during which it transpired that presenter Jim Naughtie had never heard of the naughty step (so much for the dumbed down BBC) while fellow contributor, an otherwise an experienced practitioner in the parenting field, attempted to explain to the nation over breakfast that there was no such thing as a naughty child. This led to my partner and father of my three children,  who lives largely in blissful ignorance of the  ‘parenting’ industry, being roundly abused in a local café by a man who wanted to know if he didn’t ****ing shout at his children either.

There may be some worthwhile lessons in all this about how adroit charities need to be if they want to use the media to get coverage for serious issues. But they aren’t nearly as interesting as trying to unpick the increasingly tangled relationship that is developing between parents, the media and public policy makers as the very private act of parenting becomes a very public business.

It is probably worth mentioning here,  for anyone else who falls into the Jim Naughtie category, that the outbreak of interest in parenting matters is a relatively new phenomenon. Indeed just over ten years ago at a seminar held by the Media and Parenting Group, the family and children’s charities present had a wish list for the media which went something like this: more coverage for parenting issues in newspapers; for the coverage to be more balanced and not to portray children as either angels or demons; for magazines to consider extending beyond 0-5 years and for TV and radio to develop dedicated programmes in the way so many had done for cookery and gardening.

Ten years on many of those wishes have been met. Parenting, in spite of being a deeply personal and emotional experience for many people, is now regularly categorised in media terms like a job or a hobby on a par with cookery and gardening. It has also provided an exciting new ‘genre’ for the media to exploit.

There is now a deluge of parenting magazines and most newspapers now have their dedicated sections. There are the aforementioned TV programmes, in fact only radio appears to be lagging behind. However when it comes to angels versus demons, or good guys versus the baddies in the case of the adults, the picture is much less rosy and the role of the media more murky.

One reason for that is the policy context. The New Labour government, which in fact helped to set up the Family and Parenting Institute in 1999, quickly and correctly took the view after taking office that ‘family life is the foundation on which our communities, our society and our country are built’ (Supporting Families Green Paper 1998).

The business of family life and ‘parenting’ has since shot up the political agenda and many progressive policies on childcare, work life balance, reforms to the tax and benefits system, teenage pregnancy, marriage and relationship support have followed. The most high profile of these is probably Sure Start – a national programme of early intervention in the lives of our most disadvantaged children.

Lately this frenzy of policy making has taken on a new urgency as the Blair era and the quest for a legacy comes to an end. Everything from educational underachievement to yobbish behaviour is being laid at the door of parents. As the Respect Tsar Louise Casey, head of the government’s Anti Social Behaviour Unit in the Home Office, said in the summer, echoing Bill Clinton;  ‘It’s the parents stupid’ implying that if we could just get them sorted everything from anti social behaviour, conduct disorders to adolescent mental health issues and school failure would disappear.

This has given some in the media the green light, as if they didn’t need it already, to neatly divide parents up into two crude categories; on one side the feckless welfare scrounging begetters of feral yobs, teenage mums  and vandals; on the other the hard –working middle Englanders that so many politicians also cite these days as their target audience and whose lives are presumed to be ruined by their less responsible peers.

Not surprisingly the families featured in the more sensationalist TV programmes are invariably challenging in some way, which at times conspires to create the impression that all the nations young and their parents are going to hell in a handcart even though, troublesome as they may be, the sort of families parents and children that Louise Casey refers to are still in a minority.

The most bizarre twist in this collision between reality TV, some in the print media and the government came when ministers announced that they would now be rolling out a programme of  state backed ‘ ‘supernannies’ to run parenting classes for problem families in anti social behaviour hotspots across the country. In the accompanying media briefing the  Prime Minister talked about the’ huge popularity of TV programmes in which experts help parents with their problem kids’. Inevitably the wheel then came round full circle with accusations of nanny state-ism from many of the same papers who criticise the yob culture such policies are seeking to address.

It is little wonder then that many parents feel confused;  both feted and vilified by press and politicians and bombarded with advice and information which may be contributing to levels of anxiety that would astound previous generations. Meanwhile the complex realities of bringing up a family in the modern world, a job that is often not made easier by a skilled media marketing an ever more sophisticated range of goods at their children, are rarely addressed.

Most parents are probably doing a ‘good enough’ job. Many of those who aren’t are victims of other pressures such as relationship breakdown, addiction, poverty and poor housing, issues that are way beyond the range of Supernanny whether funded by the tax payer or Channel Four. These wider social pressure often cause parents to lose patience with their children and in some cases fail to provide clear boundaries.

But even the good enough parents admit to worrying about not being good enough, according to other polls conducted by the Family and Parenting Institute. They admit to wanting help and support not just to deal with the terrible twos and the excessive marketing to children barely out of nappies, but for to cope with the TV, the internet, the burgeoning independence of the pre teens, lack of decent leisure facilities for adolescents, fear that the outside world is a much less safe place than it was in our youth and above all managing a good work life balance.

And the media does have a role to play in this because, however much parents want help and advice, they also guard their home lives carefully. One down sides of more punitive public policy remedies such as parenting orders and Asbos has been to create a febrile climate in which many parents and families feel they are being blamed for most of the nation’s ills and many of the neediest parents are reluctant to come forward and ask for help.

So while a direct instruction from a government minister about how to use a start chart or a naughty step to encourage good behaviour would probably not go down well in most homes, the success of the TV shows tells us that the intimacy of the small screen in your front room plus a bit of celebrity input does make an accessible mix of ingredients into which some practical and difficult messages can be injected.

Eileen Hayes, editor of My Family magazine, parenting advisor to the NSPCC and chair of the Media and Parenting Group thinks there is huge scope for the media to play a positive role in supporting parents but questions whether they will manage that responsibly in the decade to come

‘The media can reach parents in all social groups on a scale not achievable by other means. Important messages about child care, positive parenting and education can be transmitted and the media can change attitudes and behaviour and reinforce the message that parenting is important while also, and this is a particular role for local media organisations, direct parents to places they can get help and support,’she explained.

‘However the trend with some of the reality TV shows is more worrying. The print media now follows up what happens in the programmes, the presenters are celebrity figures and everyone is now upping the ante to come up with ideas that are more irresponsible and we don’t really now what the effects will be on the children or indeed whether the advice some of the semi celebrity presenters are giving is right or wrong.’

One of the more respected TV parenting gurus, clinical psychologist Dr Tanya Byron recently admitted that she was giving up her Bafta nominated programme House of Tiny Tearaways. Amongst other reasons she gave was her concern at the direction of travel of the reality TV programmes in particular a recent ITV offering I smack and I’m proud.

 Following our survey, the Family and Parenting Institutes Chief Executive Mary Macleod wrote to all the programme makers urging them to make sure they act responsibly towards the families who take part and provide proper follow up support for the children, many of whom are too young to give consent or appreciate the long terms effects of having their private lives  publicly exposed. She also requested that they try and use their programmes sensibly to deliver high quality advice from skilled and knowledgeable professionals.

It remains to be seen whether anyone will take notice. At the time of writing  the Jade Goody Big Brother Row has overshadowed the latest, and possibly most controversial, reality TV parenting show The Baby Borrowers the PR blurb for which reads as follows: ‘Britain’s teenagers are breeding like rabbits – can they be convinced to wait? We tool up five teenage couples for the toughest job of all – parenting’

In the BBC Three show five teenage couples are entrusted with someone else’s babies to look after for three days. The babies are then replaced by toddlers, then pre teens and grandparents to look after….subsequent newspaper coverage and any serious ethical questions it raises about it were largely eclipsed by Jade and Shilpa. However it may only be a matter of time before we get a parent and child version of the Big Brother row, a proper spotlight on the relationship between the media and parenting and a way forward that can only benefit both sides.

This article originally appeared in the British Journalism Review in January 2007






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