Politicians are like children: they just don’t know when to stop

Frank Furedi From: The Australian August 20, 2011 

Last week an 11-year-old girl who has not yet started secondary school pleaded guilty to causing criminal damage. Nottingham Magistrates Court heard she had been seen on the streets of the city, 25km from home, hurling rocks at shop windows. Her father, in his daughter’s defence, explained: “She is going through a bad time at the moment and just ran away from her foster place. She has got a sister going through care.” Numerous children between the ages of 11-14 participated in the looting of shops and the destruction of property that made news around the world. It signifies that childhood has gone astray and that adult authority has been tragically eroded. Policymakers, politicians and opinion makers point the finger at parents. British Prime Minister David Cameron claimed the collapse of families was the principal driver. “The question people asked over and over again last week was ‘Where are the parents?’ ” asserted Cameron. Either “there was no one at home” or “they didn’t much care or they lost control”.

Reading between the lines, policies designed to “improve” parenting are likely to be one of the main government responses. Cameron has promised to put “rocket boosters” under efforts to turn round 120,000 troubled families and has warned that his government will be less sensitive to claims that its intervention was “interfering or nannying”. Cameron’s call to turn around 120,000 troubled families represents an excellent example of what can most accurately be described as a fantasy policy. It is based on the delusion that governments and bureaucracies are capable of solving the intimate family problems. But parenting is not an institution that can be reformed through state intervention. Parenting is a cultural accomplishment that is cultivated through decades of interaction in communities. That is why the billions of pounds spent so far on family intervention has failed to realise their objectives.

Worse still, the intrusion of officialdom may be partly responsible for the inability of many parents to control the behaviour of their children in the first place. For more than three decades policymakers and the child-protection industry have sought to stigmatise and criminalise parents who punish bad behaviour.