What counts as liberal parenting?

There have been a couple of articles in the Guardian’s family section recently (rather good most weeks) that have got me wondering what counts as liberal parenting nowadays. The first was a rather confused article by Charlotte Raven (http://www.guardian.co.uk/family/story/0,,1820455,00.html) saying that she had betrayed all her liberal minded ideals now she had a baby and become a ‘petty-minded domestic despot’.

The actual evidence that she had become one she gave was fairly minimal. She had got annoyed with her toddler for grabbing food and being unwilling to share. She had spelled out words she didn’t want her child to understand. She had got her baby, when 6 months old, into something of a routine (based on Gina Ford). She has embraced ‘domestic self-enslavement’ by doing some cooking for the child. (She also gone out and taken coke, which seems one of the less positive bits of ‘liberalism’ to me).

Her view of the ideal liberal mother (hers) also includes some peculiar traits. Her mother never cooked and Raven adds:

I was encouraged to say whatever came to mind and was never once upbraided for interrupting. When they told me off for doing it at school, I was shocked. I hadn’t meant to be rude – I had simply got used to tuning people out.

There’s the equally odd sound of an outraged ‘liberal’ parent in an article in this week’s Guardian by Decca Aitkenhead (http://www.guardian.co.uk/family/story/0,,1826090,00.html). Here the outrage is not self-directed but turned against the TV ‘supernanny’ Jo Frost. (I’d better say up front that I haven’t seen the programme, so my knowledge of her techniques is limited.) Aitkenhead is appalled at the disciplinary emphasis of the series and makes some good points about possible exploitation. But some of her own comments are equally extraordinary:

To say that a grown-up has an entitlement to hear a toddler say sorry is not “common sense”, I object. It’s a radical departure from virtually everything anyone has thought or written about childcare in decades.

In the moral universe of Supernanny, if children spit or fight or swear it is basically because they can. The only difference between them and good children is that they have been allowed to get away with it. In this Hobbesian understanding of childhood, discipline is logically of paramount importance, and the only measure of a corrective technique seems to be whether or not it works. Frost’s techniques certainly appear to “work”. But they also imply that what she calls “unacceptable behaviour” could never be a legitimate protest.

I consider myself a liberal parent: I’m opposed in principle to smacking and I think it’s important to try and listen to even a small child and give them choices. I haven’t used a ‘naughty step’ or its equivalent (yet). But what kind of bizarre world are Raven and Aitkenhead living in? In what situations can spitting be a legitimate protest? How ‘liberal’ is it teach a child that they need listen to no-one else but themselves?

To my way of thinking, liberal parenting means treating a child as an independent person with rights to be respected. But it also means teaching them that other people’s rights should be respected. L needs to learn to say ‘sorry’ to people, and it’s easier for her to pick it up now than when she’s older. Equally, I apologise to her if I inadvertently hurt her or unreasonably upset her.

I do find it a difficult balance between liberal and more controlling/strict parenting and there are times I wonder whether I should be more strict. One reason is that liberal parenting and an unruly toddler can just run you ragged sometimes. There are times when it would be nice to have a child who would just obey orders instantly, rather than discuss what interests her for five minutes while tuning me out. (The problem is that even nice small children are awful for a certain percentage of time. The best quote on this is by Anne Lamott)

Donna was saying the other day that she knows this two-year old who’s really very together and wonderful a lot of the time, really the world’s best two-year old, but then she added, “Of course, that’s like saying Albert Speer was the nicest Nazi. He was still a Nazi.”

But I think another reason for an increasing emphasis on discipline by mothers today is the fear factor. The two things you will really be called an unfit mother for is if you hit your child or if your child is ‘badly-behaved’, which can cover anything from causing mayhem to normal curiosity. I’m always slightly wary, for example, that L’s innocent bouncing around when out (think of a Labrador puppy, only slightly more house-trained) is going to cause complaints, though she would be far unhappier and more of a nuisance if I have to hold her hand all the time. If parents are being made to feel that their child must be well-behaved all the time, it’s no wonder they turn to any non-violent disciplinary trick there is going. If L wasn’t quite an easy child to handle (which is largely dumb luck on my part), I would probably be doing the same thing. So far (but it’s early days yet) my moderately liberal principles are mostly intact, but only because I’m not trying to push the child-centred approach to extremes.


One thought on “What counts as liberal parenting?

  1. Love your blog by the way.

    By pure trial and error I’ve ended up being a pretty Jo Frost sort of mum. I suppose I’ve done what my mum did, without the smacking and with more explanation. I used the naughty step: don’t have to now. Little ‘Un’s speciality was tantrums. Mine was totally ignoring them. They probably were a legitimate protest (what toddler wants to buy mascara?), but so was my response (who wants to pay attention to someone who’s totally lost the plot? What’s the point?).

    I think the job of parents is to teach their children how to live in the world. Life’s just a lot better and easier if you’re a person who considers others and behaves well: whether you’re three or a hundred and three.

    I’ve spent a lot of my time wondering how best to do that, but no time at all on considering if I was liberal enough, or if spitting was in any way ‘acceptable’!


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