The politics of parenting

There is a prevailing assumption that children and politics do not mix. That parenting is apolitical, and that women who talk about children cannot, at the same time, be talking about resistance, justice, struggle or emancipation.

This was brought home to me recently, when in a recent Facebook post I wrote the following:

“I received a babycentre email today which told me to offer my toddler two choices of pyjamas’ at bed time to make him ‘feel in control’ and like he ‘has power’. Sounds familiar. What happens to freedom of speech and choice when the only acceptable options are prescribed in advance? Unless power is relinquished there is no freedom of choice.” (11 April 2012)

This was a serious attempt to link parenting decisions and practice to the social structures in which they are based. Not many people got it. The post was met with humour and bewilderment, and I realised that many people won’t tolerate pyjamas and politics in the same sentence.

But being a parent is profoundly political. I’m not just talking about middle class deliberations about organic veg, cloth nappies and cycling. I’m referring to the deeper, difficult decisions that one faces every day as a prent.

When my son was born, I was shocked at the reactions to carrying him in a sling, breastfeeding him on demand, and responding to his needs regardless of the much-touted ‘routine’.  My intuitive responses to him, which I later learned came broadly under the banner of attachment parenting, were met with a chorus of disapproval. I wanted to grow a secure, attached, confident child. But the overwhelming concern was about dependency: “He won’t be able to get to sleep on his own.” “He’ll need you for too long.” “You’ll never get anything done.” “He will learn bad habits.” “You’ve got to let him cry.”

Underlying these concerns was an assumption that the child will always try to manipulate the parent, and that the parent must engage in a permanent battle to ensure maximum independence and productivity for all parties. The stress is on individuality, independence, control, predictability and productivity. The unconditionality of the relationship between parent and child, potentially poses a deep challenge to this conditionality, competition and exchange. Like friendship, the bond between parents and children is not reducible to exchange value, nor is it based on return.

But this is not for the want of trying. Soon after my baby was born, I encountered the vehement, and extremely lucrative, Gina Ford cult. I’d never heard of this woman before, but quickly realised that her advice echoes in the mouths of relatives, health-professionals, and baby-group leaders. Leave your baby to cry. Feed your baby when it is time to eat, not when they are hungry. Enforce a rigid routine. Do not let them get away with bad behaviour. You are the boss. Otherwise, they will RUN YOUR LIFE. Advice instructing parents to feed tiny babies every four hours, and advocating clock-based routines, disguise the artificial, constructed discipline of the clock. Instead, this is naturalised, and used as a tool to mould a small army of Gina’s ‘contented little babies’. Satiated. Not curious, excited, inquisitive or angry. But placated, consoled and regulated. Like obedient citizens.

More recently, I’ve been reading and trying to put into practice, Alfie Kohn’s fantastic Unconditional Parenting. Unconditionality goes against the core principles of the market. It is anti-competition and anti-exchange. If one does it well, a child will not paint to seek approval, but to make their mark, to express themselves, to have fun. Their behaviour is not ‘naughty’, but a way of experimenting and learning about the world. This, often difficult, approach asks us to allow our children to question our stock values and decisions. This does not mean maintaining control (and ‘good behaviour’) by creating the illusion of choice, but rather genuinely opening oursleves to relinquishing power. Of course, there are circumstances in which one should not offer choices: parents clearly have a safeguarding role that demands boundaries and limits. But this approach aims to avoid praise and punishment, to support and love children unconditionally.

Of course, this is not how schools, businesses and governments work. Mark Fisher’s recent Capitalist Realism explores the suggestion (often attributed to Fredric Jameson) that it is easier to imagine the end of the world, than the end of capitalism. Perhaps if we reject the  baby-trainers and start to take  the idea of political parenting a bit more seriously, we might be able to imagine relationships that resist competition and exchange, and nurture a generation of human beings who find it that little bit easier to imagine the end of capitalism.


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