While the focus on ‘problem parents’ has received renewed intensity in the wake of the riots, it is also an expression of a steady trend towards ever-greater scrutiny of parenting. Parenting has become one of the most charged political and cultural subjects of our age. As the evidence about the decisive impact that the quality of parenting has on children’s outcomes continues to grow, parents have come to be seen not just as the cause of many society’s ills but also the key to unlocking positive change such as improved social mobility.[i]
This scrutiny of parenting has led to the idea of a parenting ‘deficit’ and the view that there are a growing number of parents who are incapable. Yet, this focus on parenting skills is not matched by conclusive evidence about a decline in our standards of parenting. It also acts as a distraction it risks diverting our attention away from the mounting pressures which modern society creates for parents. The challenge for policy now is to find the right balance between supporting parents in developing their skills and capabilities and working to lessen the pressures parents face. To do this successfully, a positive framework for supporting parents needs to be created and concrete steps taken towards creating a more family friendly society.
The rise of the professional parent
‘Parenting’ has entered the mainstream as a verb. The verb parenting implies an act, with a concomitant set of skills and capabilities to be acquired, rather than the noun parent which simply implies a status we acquire when we have children. We are more aware than ever of the impact of parenting styles on the development of the brain and a child’s core capabilities such as application, agency and empathy.[ii]
In response, we have observed the rise of ‘parenting practitioners’ and the emergence of a plethora of products offering parents advice and information. This has had the positive effect of making parents more aware of effective parenting strategies, but it also has the unintended consequence of professionalising parenting, which potentially deskills parents as well as raising anxiety rates and guilt. Self-help books and websites are awash with articles cataloguing the phenomenon of over-anxious parents, while attitudinal surveys indicate that parents worry about the quality of their parenting.[iii]
Consequently, parenting has been subject to the forces of professionalisation and marketisation, which has in turn led to increased scrutiny of our private, domestic lives. While the debate on parenting has been genuinely important in improving the quality of parenting that some children receive, it also inevitably leaves others feeling judged and under pressure to deliver to a set of fixed, and inevitably elusive, standards.
It is the context of increased scrutiny and rising standards for parenting that the question of whether parents are ‘failing’ has emerged. However, much of the evidence available suggests that far from becoming a nation of apathetic, laissez-faire parents, many of us are spending more time with our children and have higher expectations of them.
Between 1986 and 2006, seven out of eight measures of parental expectations showed an increase, the proportion of parents expecting their children to be polite increased from 75 per cent to 87 per cent and 95 per cent of parents expect their children to do their homework, up from 90 per cent in 1986.[iv]
Analysis of ONS data shows that parents report spending three times longer with their children per day in 2002 than they did in 1972.[v]
The time spent by working mothers with their children has grown over the last two decades, from fewer than 40 minutes per day in 1974 – 75 to more than 90 minutes in 1999. Working mothers now spend more time with their children than non-working mothers did in 1981.[vi]
Analysing UK-specific data, Fisher[vii] found significant increases since the 1960s in father’s involvement with their children, although these increases still do not amount to father/mother parity in terms of time spent on childcare.[viii]
One of the explanations for the criminal behaviour of some young looters over the course of the riots was the poor parenting that they had received. While it would be impossible to ascertain conclusively whether the ‘quality’ of parenting has improved or declined over time, or indeed whether there is now more variance in the quality of parenting, one recent study did set out to review the evidence on whether poor parenting was responsible for deterioration in adolescent behaviour. The author summarises the findings thus: ‘we found no evidence for declining standards of parenting overall and this leads us to believe this factor does not generally explain the rise in problem behaviour.’[ix] Research such as this suggests we should exercise caution when it comes to generalisations about the quality of modern parenting.
The modern pressures on parents
It is notable that these trends in time spent with children have been observed despite the pressures modern life presents to parents. In many key respects British society is far from friendly to families, for example in one recent FPI poll 76% of parents said that stress, including financial pressures (67%) and long working hours (37%), are undermining family life.[x] This brings home that the reality that combining work and caring responsibilities is a very real challenge for families.
While the increasing numbers of women in the workplace (maternal employment has tripled since 1951)[xi] has led to positive progress on gender equality and seen fathers take a more active role in childcare than was previously the case, the challenge of making the ‘dual earner’ model work in practice creates specific pressures on family life. The fact that families struggle to meet the additional time pressure created by working parenthood is well documented. And as the expectation of fully shared co-parenting is still yet to be realised, it often continues to be a particular pressure for women. In one large-scale survey, more than three-quarters of mothers stated that, in day-to-day life, they still have the primary responsibility for childcare in the home.[xii] Research suggests that many women are still undertaking a ‘double-shift’ in the workplace and at home.[xiii]
For both women and men, UK employment practices remain unfriendly to family life: in 2010, 11.1 per cent of the UK population in employment worked at night; 25.3 per cent worked in the evening; 22.2 per cent worked on Saturday.[xiv] Cultural factors in the workplace can also work against families; even those employees who are entitled to parental leave may still not necessarily feel able to take up their full entitlement. [xv],[xvi]
For those families who do succeed in combining work with bringing up young children, the on-going difficulty of finding affordable, accessible childcare has only been intensified by the recent cost rises. The cost of a nursery place of a child aged two or over in England has increased by 4.8 per cent since 2009/10[xvii] and 63% of parents, regardless of income, say they cannot afford not to work but struggle to pay for childcare.[xviii] This comes at a time when parents can least afford it, with rises in VAT, food and fuel prices and high unemployment.[xix] It is unsurprising that consumer confidence and household spending remains low when families are feeing such financial pressure.
The isolation of modern parenting
With higher expectations of themselves, and living in a society which asks them to seamlessly combine employment and childcare, the networks of support parents rely on come to assume greater significance. However, trends around migration, atomisation and couple separation mean that the social bonds which used to be central to family life have been weakened in some key respects. The act of parenting has become individualised, without the pre-established networks of kinship which once underpinned family life. For example:
One in three working mothers now rely upon grandparents for childcare[xx] but grandparents are less likely to live in the same household as their children and grandchildren. The number of three generation households declined from about 25 per cent in the 1960s to fewer than 10 per cent in 1998.[xxi]
Many parents do not have the day-to-day support of a partner, the percentage of UK households that are categorised as ‘single parents with dependent children’ doubled from between 1971 and 2008.[xxii]
Between 1984 and 1996, Britons became much more likely to say that most people in their local area tend to ‘go their own way’ rather than ‘help each other’ (although in the last decade this trend has begun to reverse somewhat).[xxiii]
But perhaps the most worrying by-product of individualising the act of parenting is that the role played in family life by the wider family and the community has been side-lined. Research has also shown that many of our public spaces, towns and neighbourhoods are distinctly unfriendly towards children and young people, with parental anxieties potentially leading to a withdrawal of children and families from many shared spaces.[xxiv] In contrast to our European neighbours, evidence is increasingly pointing towards a culture which is not supportive of child wellbeing and a flourishing environment for families.[xxv] We may be quick to hold parents responsible for the failings of their children but we are much less willing to acknowledge the critical role played by society and our communities.
The problem of ‘problem’ families
Alongside the professionalisation of parenting, we have also seen greater political legitimacy behind the idea that government should intervene in cases of ‘market failure’ – to pick up the pieces where parents are deemed to be failing.
‘We've got to get out there and make a positive difference to the way families work, the way people bring up their children and we've got to be less sensitive to the charge that this is about interfering or nannying….. And we need more urgent action, too, on the families that some people call 'problem', others call 'troubled'. The ones that everyone in their neighbourhood knows and often avoids.
Prime Minister David Cameron, August 2011[xxvi]
In response to the riots of the summer, politicians have re-stated promises to ‘turn around the lives of the 120,000 most troubled families in the country’.[xxvii] This figure of 120,000[xxviii] has been quoted widely in the media and policy circles – but it is troubling how easily families ‘with multiple problems’[xxix] have morphed into ‘problem families’. It is important to retain the distinction as, while there is likely to be some overlap, the population of families who drive criminal activity is not the same as the population of families who experience multiple problems. Unless we retain this distinction, the proposed policy solutions are likely to be, at best, inappropriate and at worse actively harmful to the families in question.
Of course, the term ‘families with multiple problems’ is just the most current way of describing this group. A whole host of terms have been used to grapple with the same challenge over the past decade: ‘vulnerable families’, ‘chaotic families’, ‘dysfunctional families’ and ‘families at risk’.[xxx]Even before the most recent raft of announcements, this group has been of central concern to previous governments.[xxxi] That this agenda continues to dominate across the political spectrum only serves to illustrate the complexity and long-term nature of the problem.
Family Intervention Projects (FIPs) have been hailed as a key part of the strategy for tackling this multifaceted challenge. These services tend to use a similar model of intervention, providing intensive and persistent support for the whole family, coordinated by a single key worker. There is reliable evidence to suggest that such programmes can produce good outcomes for families.[xxxii] And, given the spiralling costs such families can generate for Local Authorities, FIPs have also been shown to be relatively cost effective.[xxxiii]
But, before hailing FIPs as a public policy panacea, we should recognise the challenge of scaling up such an intensive and targeted intervention. The most up to date figures from the Department for Education show that the total number of families who worked with a family intervention service between January 2006 to March 2011 was 8,841.[xxxiv] There is a considerable challenge in both reaching this number of vulnerable families and persuading them to engage in any form of intervention programme in a sustained way. FIPs are also an intervention at crisis point and to this extent potentially run counter to the escalating policy focus on early intervention. What is more, in the current tight fiscal environment, their cost is likely to be a stumbling block – estimates suggest that to scale up FIPs on the current model would require an investment of between £1.5 and £2 billion.
Given these factors, FIPs (at least in the shape and form we currently observe), are likely only to be part of the Government’s solution. Other proposed policy solutions include mentoring schemes with a large element of volunteer labour. Although there are ways that volunteers may be in a position help to reach more families, it is important that in considering ways to meet the cost of programmes for families, the need for skilled, expert and long-term commitment is not overlooked.
Where next for parenting?
The issues raised in this article are inter-related; we cannot address the capabilities of a particular group of parents without considering the wider context in which we all parent. Social and economic pressures can undermine the capacity of parents to parent well.
Parenting policy has reached a crossroads and there are set of important choices ahead for policymakers. There is a risk that the current debate on ‘problem families’ unhelpfully adds another stereotype to a modern mythology of parenting. Alongside the ‘pushy parent’ who helicopters around their child and elbows others out of the way in pursuit of their child’s interests, we have the deficit model of a feckless parent, who is in need of corrective state intervention. The reality of modern parenting is, of course, more complex than these stereotypes suggest, and it is clear that to move forward we will need a more positive, sustainable framework for parenting that both offers appropriate support to parents and creates the conditions in which all families can thrive.
The government needs to review the impact of austerity measures on families.
Income is a critical factor in enabling good parenting. Conversely financial pressures layer pressure on relationships - both between couples and between parent and child. The Coalition Government is passionately committed to a family friendly society and also to a deficit reduction plan - inevitably these two agendas will conflict in places. The nature of changes to taxes and benefits over the past year has meant that families with children have faced a disproportionate impact on their income. We would urge that, when implementing policies, the Government should closely consider the financial impact on families, for example, the freeze of child benefit rates and the design of a Universal Credit system. Similarly, we need to promote efforts to place affordable, high quality childcare as central to helping parents balance work and care. It is true that supporting families in this way requires public spending, but it should be seen as an investment in future economic growth through enhanced consumer confidence, better outcomes for children and a stronger and more stable society. Austerity measures need to be ‘family proofed’ and should reflect the long-term importance of family friendly working practices, a fair economy for families, the provision of essential services for families, and good quality housing and transport.
New approaches need to be designed with families at the heart; if we start with families, then efficiencies will follow.
According to the Department for Education it is not uncommon, in the case of families with multiple problems, for up to 20 local agencies to be involved with the same family, including health services, schools, Children’s Centres, the police, social care, and Job Centre Plus. This has been shown to be expensive and ineffective as agencies involvement can overlap and even pull in opposite directions. Putting the family at the centre of service design creates real opportunities for efficiencies. We welcome a focus on early intervention and on community budgets as mechanisms that could help to ensure a joined-up approach to families’ needs across local services. We also hope that new initiatives will explore ways to utilise the entire existing public sector infrastructure available. For example, we believe that improved support and engagement of parents could be rolled out through the schools network and the best practice embodied in many children’s centres needs to be preserved - even during a period of cuts. A similar joining-up needs to happen at a national level. The Family Test should be used as an opportunity to arrive at an overview of how policies work for families across Departments – from the Departments for Education, Communities and Local Government, Health, the Home Office, Work and Pensions, and Innovation and Skills – to name some of the main actors. It is only with this approach that the Government will be able to achieve the best for families in these tough economic times.
A local family entitlement should be introduced to enhance parental choice and drive improvement in services
While the localisation agenda could bring real benefits to families, it could also drive a further unevenness in service provision and quality. Developing a consistent entitlement for all parents will help us to avoid a postcode lottery of services at local level, and begin not just to tackle the difficult cases, but avoid a family facing a problem becoming a family in crisis. The range of parenting and family interventions available should be coordinated locally with a clear statement of the universal entitlement available to all parents, as well as signposting to support and advice in relation to the intensive options of provision for the most vulnerable groups. We regard the current moment as a real opportunity to place families and parents at the heart of spending decisions at the local level. However, in order for this to provide genuine opportunities for consultation, our current mechanisms need to be recognised as insufficient to engage families. We believe that work is needed to enhance the ability of decision-makers to engage with families at the local and central levels. Too often discussions are led from a top-down perspective (with the starting point the questions that matter to politicians and policy-makers, not families) and too often consultation takes place after decisions have been taken. We should not assume we know what different families need; developing an entitlement would require engaging with parents in a far more robust way in the years ahead.
Policy solutions willonly work if there is clarity about the problems they are addressing
The desire to speed up delivery for the most vulnerable families requires further refinement if it is to work effectively, and the newly announced ‘Unit for Troubled Families’ will need to set clear parameters for what success looks like. There are three possible targets here – 1) a drive for volume; 2) a drive to limit anti-social behaviour and 3) a drive to ensure that services intervene in a way that prevent family problems becoming a family crisis. Each would require a different strategy and suggest starkly different measures of success. At first sight, the drive for volume is unlikely to be deliverable – cost and the requirement to develop differentiated interventions that would be appropriate across this population and the simple organisational challenges in scaling up would all stand in the way. The second would suggest an extension of FIPs to a tightly defined subset of subset of families who are engaged or at risk of being involved in criminal activity and an implementation plan for roll out to the right scale. The third approach is the one that not only holds more long term promise, but adds together with government’s thinking in this area with the early intervention agenda. This approach would bring into sharp focus the further work that needs to be done at a local level to make services work together more effectively for families and highlight the gaps that are undermining parents’ ability to parent effectively, with particular strain already identified in the areas of mental health, domestic violence or support for families with children with special educational needs. Such an approach might then, in turn, enable a new look at effective spending at a local level, enabling greater investment in preventative services even in a time of economic constraint.
We need to know more about family trends, behaviour and motivations to make a success of initiatives.
Families are not homogenous, and we risk stigmatisation of certain groups if we rely too heavily on blunt demographic indicators of potential risk factors. Snap-shot surveys are not sufficient in this respect, segmentation of families’ needs to be based on evidence about real parenting behaviour and should inform the targeting of advice, guidance and support. While a group of ‘problem families’ have been placed at the centre of the political response, the Government needs to specify how a scaled-up intervention will reach across this group and then ensure that a variety of interventions are in place appropriate to the different needs they have. Improved clarity about what is likely to drive changes in parental behaviour will also enhance the impact and reach of proposed policy solutions, including the planned pilot of a system of parenting vouchers.
While parents look set to remain ‘under the microscope’ for some time to come, we must move forward in a way which supports the confidence of parents rather than undermining them. Ultimately, progress will only be observed if we recognise not only the importance of parenting skills, but the fact that parenting is a ‘social good’ and for us to parent well, we will require a family friendly society and economy.
[i] See, for example p.6 of HM Government ‘Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers: A Strategy for Social Mobility (2011)which argues that: ‘Parents and families have to be centre stage. This strategy sets out plans to support a culture where the key aspects of good parenting are widely understood and where all parents can benefit from advice and support.’
[ii] Margo, J et al, Freedom’s Orphans, London: Institute for Public Policy Research 2008
Lexmond, J and Reeves, R, Building Character, London: Demos, 2010
[iii] See Netmums survey findings on the pressure to be a perfect parent, and their ‘real parenting revolution’ launched in response to rising anxiety:
[iv] See Nuffield Foundation, ‘Time trends in parenting and outcomes for young people’, 2009, London www.nuffieldfoundation. org/sites/default/files/Nuffield_CAP_web_final.pdf
[v] Williams, F. (2005) Rethinking Families. London: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation
[vi] Gershuny, J. (2000) Changing times: work and leisure in postindustrial society. Oxford: Oxford University Press
[vii] Fisher, K. et al (1999) British Fathers and their Children. Report for Channel 4 Dispatches. Colchester: Institute of Social and Economic Research, University of Essex
[viii] For more discussion of this subject, please see ‘Father’s Involvement in Family life in Hunt (ed) Family Trends: British families since the 1950s, Family and Parenting Institute, 2009
[ix] Nuffield Foundation Parents of teenagers are doing a good job http://www.nuffieldfoundation.org/news/parents-teenagers-are-doing-good-job
[x]FPI polling was conducted among 2016 parents with children under 18 during June 2011.
[xi]Hunt, S. (ed) (2009) Family Trends: British families since the 1950s, Family and Parenting Institute,
[xii] Ellison, G. et al (2009) Work and Care: a study of modern parents. Equality and Human Rights Commission, research report 15.
[xiii] Green, H. and Parker, S. (2006) The Other Glass Ceiling: the domestic politics of parenting. Demos London http://www.demos.co.uk/publications/theotherglassceiling
[xiv] Eurostat Population in employment working during asocial hours - LFS series http://epp.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/portal/page/portal/employment_unemployment_lfs/data/database
[xv] In a survey for the Equality and Human Rights Commission whilst 55% of fathers had taken paternity leave, of those who did not 49% said that they could not afford it and 19% were too busy at work or thought their employer would not approve of them taking such leave
EHRC (2009) response to BIS consultation ‘Choice for families: additional paternity leave and pay’ http://www.equalityhumanrights.com/legal-and-policy/consultation-responses/response-to-consultation-on-choice-for-families-additional-paternity-leave-and-pay/
[xvi] A survey for DWP found that 16 per cent of mothers took less than the statutory minimum entitlement (i.e. 26 weeks) and 35 per cent took exactly 26 weeks maternity leave; 46 per cent of mothers took between 27 and 52 weeks and only three per cent were off for more than 52 weeks
[xvii] Daycare Trust Rapid rise in childcare costs adds to family finance woes (9 February 2011) http://www.daycaretrust.org.uk/pages/rapid-rise-in-childcare-costs-adds-to-family-finance-woes.html
[xviii] Daycare Trust and Save the Children survey New survey shows soaring cost of childcare is pushing the poorest out of work and children into poverty (7 September 2011)http://www.daycaretrust.org.uk/news.php?id=54
[xix] See the Family and Parenting Institute’s 2011 ‘Family Friendly Report Card’ for more data on these trends.http://www.familyandparenting.org/our_work/Families-in-the-Age-of-Austerity/Family+Friendly+Report+Card+2011
[xx] Speight, S et al, Childcare and Early Years, Survey of Parents 2008 Research Report no
DCSF-RR136, DCSF, 2009
[xxi] Dench, G. and Ogg, J. (2002) Grandparenting in Britain. London: Institute of Community Studies
[xxii] Office for National Statistics, Social Trends 39 (2009)
[xxiii] Margo, J et al, Freedom’s Orphans, London: Institute for Public Policy Research, 2006
[xxiv] Beundermann, J, Hannon, C and Bradwell, P, Seen and Heard, London: Demos, 2007.
[xxv] In a landmark 2007 report, Unicef found that UK children have the lowest levels of well-being in the developed world, see UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre. (2007). Child poverty in perspective: An overview of child well-being in rich countries. Florence: Innocenti Report Card.
[xxvi] David Cameron, The Fight-back After The Riots, Speech in Witney, (15 August 2011)
[xxvii] David Cameron speech, reported in the Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/blog/2011/aug/15/england-riots-cameron-miliband-speeches
[xxviii] Figure comes originally from research done by the Cabinet Office based Social Exclusion Task Force (SETF), using data from the Families and Children Study
[xxix] The Department for Education definition is that ‘Families with multiple problems/complex needs/troubled families are defined as those who have five or more of the following disadvantages (FACS, 2004): No parent in the family is in work; family lives in poor quality or overcrowded housing; no parent has any qualifications; mother has mental health problems; at least one parent has a longstanding limiting illness, disability or infirmity; family has low income (below 60% of the median); family cannot afford a number of food and clothing items.’ Department for Education (2011) Estimated distribution of families with multiple problems as at March 11
[xxx] See Barrett, H., Parenting Programmes for Families at Risk: A Source Book, National Family and Parenting Institute, 2003
[xxxi] For example, in his 2009 speech to Labour party conference Gordon Brown promised that: ‘Starting now and right across the next Parliament every one of the 50,000 most chaotic families will be part of a family intervention project – with clear rules, and clear punishments if they don’t stick to them’ http://www.labour.org.uk/gordon-brown-speech-conference
[xxxii]Monitoring and Evaluation of Family Intervention Projects and Services to March 2011 (England) Department for Education Statistical Release http://www.education.gov.uk/rsgateway/DB/STR/d001021/osr14-2011.pdf
[xxxiii]Estimated annual savings resulting from a family successfully completing a family intervention ranged between £62,000 and £75,000. Because these costs accumulate year on year the potential for long-term savings for both authorities and wider society are considerable’ Department for Education website: http://www.education.gov.uk/childrenandyoungpeople/families/multipleproblems/a0078053/evaluation-and-assessing- cost-effectiveness
[xxxiv] Monitoring and Evaluation of Family Intervention Projects and Services to March 2011 (England)
Department for Education Statistical Release September 2011