The Challenges of Raising the Next Generation in the Contemporary Culture of 'Parenting'
FAMILY RESEARCH CONFERENCE, University of Tampere, Finland, 19th April 2018
The challenges of raising the next
generation in the contemporary
culture of ‘parenting’.
Dr Jan Macvarish
Centre for Parenting Culture
Studies, University of Kent
Birkbeck College, University
Thank you for inviting me to address the conference.
I feel very privileged to have been invited and very lucky to be spending the next 4 days
It’s not just me who is excited about Finland. I don’t know whether you are aware that
Finland is looked upon as a type of paradise, a nirvana, especially for children and
Finnish mothers are beautiful, happy and very loving.
So much so that I am surprised you even need to have a conference to
discuss the issues of childhood when you could all just be feeling the
unique Finnish love of actually being with your wonderul Finnish children.
I certainly don’t really know why you would ask a British person, raised by
British parents to come to speak to you about parenting.
Because in Britain, young people are apparently more miserable than any
other young people.
Carries on into school. When other children are horrible to them.
It’s not just children. British mothers are also apparently very unhappy. 1 in 3 women
said to suffer from postnatal depression.
And British fathers are also very unhappy. 1 in 4 of them are said to suffer postnatal
These kinds of figures are presented in the news every day, they come from campaign
groups and researchers. It seems that unhappiness and mental ill-health is the new
normal in Britain and that family life and child-rearing are deeply problematic.
These statistics and claims demand interrogation and deconstruction, but even without
doing that, I think we might agree that it is rather strange that family life should be
portrays as such a negative place.
I want to look today at one of the ways me and my colleagues at the Centre for
Parenting Culture Studies at the Univeristy of Kent have tried to understand this
The first thing we have done is to question the term ‘parenting’ itself, and identified it
as central to a ‘parenting culture’. As a foundation, we drew a distinction between
raising children and ‘parenting’. One of the features is that ‘parenting’ narrows the task
of raising children to parents or a parent. It also usually connotes ‘ a problem’.
It comes into being to say that the way we are raising children is a problem.
It comes into being to say that the way we are raising children could be improved.
So, to come back to ‘Finland as a parents paradise’. We can see that this article claims that in Finland, ‘parenting is
better’. I think that is quite different to saying ‘family life is happier’.
In this case, ‘better’ than in the United States but this article could easily appear in Britain, where ‘parenting’ is
often paired with problems.
So what are the 6 reasons?
-babies sleep in boxes - no need for fancy cribs. Resisting crazy consumerism.
-no ‘tiger’ moms and dads. Fins do not pressure children to do everything better and earlier.
-there is a better work life balance
- there is substantial maternity and paternity leave
-There is affordable childcare
-there is more equality - more equal outcomes?
It doesn’t really mean that ‘parenting is better’, they mean that the parental
experience of raising children is easier, mainly because it receives greater
But this is an unusual interpretation of what ‘better parenting’ means.
More often it is about ‘being a better parent’, ‘doing it better’. It is usually
about instruction or training. A technical task requiring ‘skills’ and ‘tools’.
And why would parents do this? To make ‘better’ children.
This is how we have a new development in the uk: ‘parenting policy’.
Which comes into being to argue that better parenting can solve all kinds
of social problems.
That better social outcomes could be achieved if parents behaved
That if parents loved more or loved and cared better, we could solve social
problems and reduce social costs.
One of the most concentrated forms of this instrumentalisation of parental
love is what I called neuroparenting. Which I will take a bit of time to
Can you describe to me:
What is the mother doing?
What is the baby wearing?
It’s a device called a STARLING.
This is a what a father thinks of the Starling. I don’t know
if this is a real father or a marketing person’s fantasy of
their dream customer.
Note how he is reliant on a book of ‘brain rules for baby’
to determine how often he should speak to his baby.
My wife and I are new first time parents, and are as anxious as any
new parents that we’re going to do something that will either be
bad for our son or miss doing something that could have really
helped him long term.
I read this book by John Medina, Brain Rules for Baby, where he says
that for optimal brain development your baby should hear (from a live
person) 2,100 words per hour so when a friend of mine mentioned the
starling I got pretty excited. How else would I know how many words
we’re speaking to the kid? Who knows how important this stuff really
is, but I’m a pretty data driven guy and there’s certainly no harm. We
check our word count every couple days…so far so good.
Great idea Starling
Now redescribe what is going on the picture.
I am not against science which helps us understand better
how child develop, I don’t think is about better science.
I think the promotion of neuroparenting is about
something else. Scientism. Drawing on ‘science’ to answer
all of life’s questions, to operate as a guide to life.
Hence ‘we now know’ or ‘the research tells us’.
‘we now know’
‘the research tells us’
‘a framework for understanding the obligation of parent to child in which the
primary parental role is said to be the nurturing of the baby’s ‘brain’
development. Priority is given to the idea that emotions are neurologically
determined in the earliest years of life by parent-child interactions and
that ‘correct’ neuro-emotional development is necessary for humans to
function adequately as social beings.’ Macvarish, 2016
‘a cultureless blue-print’
And it is this narrow, technical search for what has been
called ‘cultureless blueprint’ that is really troubling.
I want to give an example of ‘neuroparenting’ which
doesn’t start from neuroscience at all.
Has anyone heard of the Thirty Million Word Gap? It is
actually what underpins the Starling.
But the science of the starling is not ‘brain science’. Hart and Risley 1995.
Sample of 42 children
Families observed for one hour a month, counting words heard.
13 high status children compared with 6 children from welfare families.
Estimated difference of 30 million words between the wealthiest and the poorest.
It was a very small study which provided a focal point for social activism from the start
- that was its intention, hence hte title ‘The early catastrophe’. The concern was actually
poverty and social inequality - children from poor families doing less well in school
and work than others. But the solution was to train poor parents to utter more words to
Not a radical social justice agenda - Conservative Government cited it. Indicates that
etting parents to parent better according particular rules has become institutionalised.
‘The Early Catastrophe: The
Thirty Million Word Gap by
● Sample of 42 children
● Families observed for one hour a month, counting words heard.
● 13 high status children compared with 6 children from welfare
In the US and UK: there have been public health and family
welfare campaigns around talking to babies
“a staggering statistic”
“mums and dads literally build babies’
brains” through ‘baby talk’ & ‘silly
David Cameron, 11 January 2016
Reading to babies. Re’translate family pleasures in instrumental terms for
expert assessment and record-keeping.
The demand that all parents engage intensively with their children to
stimulate their brains has also been internationalised. Senegal - overcoming
rural poverty by teaching mothers to look at their babies and play with them.
What does this do? Vansieleghem
Inserts external experts, measures and arbiters into the parent -child relationship.
‘We’re using the lever of parent talk to get into the parent-child relationship’
A culture in which parental becomes retranslated into scientised terms.
Love becomes attachment. Even the apparently low-tech, naturalistic, non-consumerist
sling requires baby-wearing classes.
Breaking the bonds of parental solidarity
‘the notion that we are living in a complex and permanently
changing society’ breaks the ‘possibility of historical continuity
in family practices’, this in turn legitimises ‘greater recourse to
expertise and the expansion of measures to manage the inner
life of families’
Vansieleghem (2010: 341)
Mediating family relationships
‘We’re using the lever of parent talk to get into
the parent-child relationship’
Dana Suskind, founder of the Thirty Million Words
Not all about official advice and high tech marketing. Goes wider and deeper into
How you carry your baby becomes of great significance. A highly meaningful choice. I
will leave aside the question of how women feed their babies, the most fraught areas of
parenting culture, as my colleagues have explored.
This embracing of parenting as a lifestyle choice, of huge individual and social
significance suggests that having babies and raising children has become a means by
which some parents create a meaningful identity.
Neuroparenting as an identity
My mom never wore me as a baby; in fact I know she hardly ever left
the house with me when I was little. I spent a lot of time outside in a
pram, stationary, “in the fresh air in the garden.” I did the total
opposite with my son: I took him everywhere, even as a little baby, and
thanks to slings and wraps, he was my little, content travel buddy and
literally saw the world with me. Being stimulated by seeing and
hearing so many different things benefits a child's brain
Brelfie. The external moral imperative to breastfeed to raise better babies
meets an individual search for a meaningful identity.
Hendrick: Narcissistic parenting?
This has been called 'Narcissistic Parenting'. There is something true
about this, but what Harry Hendrick fails to understand is that this does not
result in parental selfishness but in an undermining of parental
self-confidence and parental authority.
The desire for children [is] ego-related and connected
with the present: parents want to . . . get something for
themselves from giving birth, nursing, raising and
providing for their children. . . . Hope of discovering
oneself through one’s children is more widespread . . . it
is [typical] of a large number of parents that having
children is no longer primarily understood as a service, a
kind of devotion of social obligation. Instead it is admitted
to be a way of life in which one pursues one’s own
interests. (Beck & Beck-Gernsheim, 1995, p. x)
Undermining support for parents and
In many ways has echoes of past attempts to build nations through maternal
improvement. Old brelfie.
Nazism - the mother’s body is instrumentalised in the name of the German volk.
Moral and political pressure is applied (to women) to ‘do better’ in order to ‘build a
better society’. Hitler was very keen on parenting classes.
Perhaps this highly pressurised, intensives parenting culture, perhaps at its height in
US and UK, explains why we look elsewhere for what we imagine to be a more
collective, more genuinely child-centred way of supporting families?
Whether this is true or not is what we can discuss!