Potty shaming – why blaming the parents is a political actIvy Madziva
Demonising parents for not getting kids out of nappies is part of a wider class agenda at the heart of the austerity programme.
‘If potty training were uppermost in schools’ minds, a creative approach would start with finding a way to support parents who were struggling, which would be sympathetic, non-judgmental and inclusive.’ Photograph: Getty Images
Potty training is a parent’s job, according to Amanda Spielman, the head of Ofsted, interviewed earlier this week. It’s such an uncontroversial statement – who could think otherwise? Even on a practical level, if you left it to a teacher, you’d run the risk of a child who was only potty-trained during school hours. Yet the statement fails a basic authenticity test: it does not mean what it appears to mean.
Some 70% of primary schools have registered a rise in the number of four-year-olds who arrive in reception wearing a nappy. In every single school Spielman visited, there was “at least one”. It is highly improbable that this is the main concern raised by the headteachers. Like children who arrive with very little English, potty training arouses great concern among commentators, a signifier of some deeper malaise, but is not a steady or fixed state: children learn quite fast. Far more intractable are the problems associated with poverty; hunger, insecure housing, punishingly long school days, when both parents are working all the hours they can. Those persist right into year six and beyond, negatively affecting learning and wellbeing, and teachers worry about them constantly, as anyone knows who kicks around primary schools on a regular basis. Most of these potty pronouncers have no direct experience of the state sector, and educated their own children elsewhere. This is unfortunate.
Let’s say for the sake of argument, though, that potty training was uppermost in schools’ minds. A creative approach would start with finding a way to support parents who were struggling, which would be sympathetic, non-judgmental and inclusive. It’s simply not possible to make a meaningful connection with anybody while castigating them as the harbingers of social breakdown.
Yet blaming the parents isn’t, in itself, meaningless: it has been a constant theme of the conservative government, since the opening shots of the coalition. The emphasis on early years, the “1001 critical days”, as Andrea Leadsom’s cross-party children’s manifesto had it in 2015, consistently and trenchantly drew a line from poverty to poor parenting, such that the two were often completely elided.
A health visitor intervention might be made on the basis of a low income, but then justified by studies – many of them now contested – showing that babies could only develop normally if their attachments were secure and their mothers talked to and engaged with them.
There was an obsession, with Iain Duncan Smith at its vanguard, with the neuroscience of neglect, but the language would slide so that an “at-risk” family might be one in debt, or receipt of benefits.
Tracey Jensen, a lecturer at the University of Lancaster and author of Parenting the Crisis, describes this period as “weaponised parent-blame in a post-welfare culture”, and in a way it was quite rational. If your core business is to roll back the state, then you need to situate all success and failure within the behaviour of the individual in a nuclear family; allow in a chink of dumb luck, and you have to rebuild the structures by which we support one another.
Children really interrupt this process, since nothing that goes wrong for a four-year-old could ever be described as its fault. Building a language and set of policies around catastrophically poor parenting is quite a neat squaring of this circle, allowing you to remain sympathetic to the child – more than a crusader on its behalf – while continuing on your course of impoverishing its parents.
A whole forest sprang up of subtle but ubiquitous assumptions about good and bad parenting which were heavily class coded. Good (middle-class) parents breast-fed; bad (working-class) parents gave their children crisps. Good parents extended their children’s vocabularies, bad parents strapped them into a buggy and pointed them at a wall while they watched Jeremy Kyle. The standards of proof were very low.
It’s unlikely that many politicians saw evidence of this poor parenting, since you probably wouldn’t, if you had Andrea Leadsom in your house, give anybody any crisps. Jensen quotes David Cameron, a week after the 2011 riots, saying: “I don’t doubt that many of the rioters have no father at home.” But how could he possibly have known that? None of them had yet been identified.
I had tiny children while this was first starting – 2010-11 – and while, intellectually, I saw it for what it was, an open attack on the working-class mother, my visceral objection was that it also set absurd standards for the middle-class mother: the price of your social status was that you observed the orthodoxies that a working-class mother wouldn’t, whether that was organic carrots or a two-year maternity leave. I could never figure out why any of us bought it, then a friend said: “Motherhood is a great leveller, isn’t it? And some people don’t want to be level.”
Those early years flash by, and once they are over and the hot glare of judgment is off you, as a mother, you lose your indignation and your attention moves elsewhere. Yet the demonisation of the “other” parent has been at the dead centre of the austerity agenda, its fig leaf, its rationale, its organising principle. Many establishment figures now, I suspect, slide into it unwittingly, humming along to the mood music with statements about what a good parent is and does, thinking them obvious, anodyne and apolitical. But blaming the parents is a political act, about as political as it gets.
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