Why don't some parents like taking advice from non-parents?

Close-up of mother cradling baby

An MP has apologised after making reference to the childlessness of former Children and Families Minister Sarah Teather. But why do some people question non-parents' ability to give advice about children?

"She certainly didn't produce one of her own."

So was Sarah Teather described by fellow MP Tim Loughton who served alongside her at the Department for Education.

The remarks were widely condemned as offensive and sexist. Loughton subsequently apologised and said he had not intended to criticise the former minister personally.

However, the row revealed a little-acknowledged fact. For some people, opinions about child-rearing from those who have thus far not had any children are worth less than those who have.

About a month before Loughton's comments were made public, the website Mumsnet debated the issue of "advice from childless friends". To many, this advice was largely unwelcome.

"I mean honestly do you actually believe those 4 hours that you have cared for a child equate to the harsh reality of parenting?" wrote one poster. "Unless you are a parent you can't possibly have any concept of what parenting is like," added another.

Other board members dissented. There are, after all, plenty of teachers, midwives, carers and other childcare professionals who don't themselves have offspring, but carry out their jobs diligently and effectively.

Objective observer v on-the-job

"Seemingly everyone has parenting opinions, so I hereby present mine, which are those of someone who isn't in fact a parent and maybe has a valuable distance and objectivity as a result," wrote Frank Bruni in the New York Times.

"Why all the negotiating and the painstakingly calibrated diplomacy? They're toddlers, not Pakistan."

But childless people tend to be "arrogant and smug" about parenting, wrote John Blumenthal in the Huffington Post. "They were absolutely positive they were right and were convinced that we were being manipulated. Really? Manipulated? By a three-year-old?

"The thing is, nobody really knows how to raise a child. It's pretty much always on-the-job-training, the operative phrase being 'on-the-job'... In other words, if you don't have kids, you have no clue."

Can people without children offer any worthwhile insights into parenting, asked Lenore Skenazy on Parentdish.

"Pretty much anyone who has been around kids, as a teacher, coach or even babysitter - especially babysitter - has gleaned some insights beyond 'You're spoiling your kids rotten.'"

Nonetheless, it's undeniable that many parents don't like being told what to do by people who have never changed a nappy or been kept awake by a crying baby.

Justine Roberts, Mumsnet's chief executive, acknowledges there is a body of opinion on her site that finds child-free people "fussing over" parents annoying, especially when they haven't had to engage with the tiring, unromantic side of parenthood. "It's about understanding how irritating toddlers are," she says.

But she draws a distinction between these kind of attitudes and the comments made by Loughton. It's one thing an unqualified non-parent offering words of wisdom, it's another when either a childless expert, or a politician who works with experts, is involved.

"I've never seen any criticism of Sarah Teather on Mumsnet," Roberts says." To be honest I think it's just mean. It's about characterising a woman's worth as whether she has children."

Others agree that the gender of the 39-year-old ex-minister made her a particular target.

Mainstream society holds women to very different standards when it comes to families, according to Tina Miller, professor of sociology at Oxford Brookes University, whose research focuses on depictions of parenting.

"If 39-year-old Simon Teather was a minister, his fertility would not be invoked," says Miller.

"One of the things about women and motherhood is that we are basically socialised from the moment we are born into the expectation that we will have children. If you don't you have to provide an explanation." For her part, there has been no statement on the row issued by Teather.

Likewise, it appears that family policy, her former portfolio, attracts an expectation of first-hand expertise that other Whitehall departments do not.

Defence ministers are rarely criticised for never having served in uniform, and lacking a background in finance and economics tends not to be an impediment towards becoming chancellor of the Exchequer (the last four occupants of 11 Downing Street have been graduates in modern history, law, history and law respectively).

And yet some of the best-known dispensers of family advice are themselves child-free.

Jo Frost, television's Supernanny, has no children herself, though she has worked in childcare since 1989. The controversial parenting guru Gina Ford does not have any offspring, yet her parenting books are said to account for 25% of the entire market.

Mary Poppins at the Olympic Games opening ceremony "Practically perfect" when it comes to raising children - and none of her own

Many child-free people have not chosen their child-free status, yet find fulfilment working with or caring for other people's children. Others may have decided to have children later in life, or not at all, yet be capable of displaying empathy for young people and parents alike.

Corinne Sweet built a successful career as a child psychologist before giving birth at the age of 43. For many years she had insisted she did not want a family of her own before changing her mind.

Sweet says being a parent transformed her outlook, but she was no less capable of working with children before she gave birth.

"I worked a lot with young people before I had a child," she says. "Being a parent changes your perspective but that doesn't mean to say I couldn't empathise with children beforehand.

"There are plenty of teachers, therapists, doctors, coaches, who don't have children themselves but have the training and professionalism to do their job."

Crotchety baby

At the same time, however, she acknowledges that there were aspects of what it means to be a parent - the visceral, emotional side - that she could not have understood before she became one herself.

The success of Mumsnet and similar sites rests on the fact that sharing knowledge about the nuts and bolts of parenting, and the sense of responsibility that raising offspring brings, acts as a bonding process. Because almost always non-parents can't know what it's like.

"No-one can tell you what it's like to be a parent," says Miller. "Nothing can prepare you for that.

"If you aren't a parent yourself you can have ideas yourself but you can't know."

More from the Magazine

What's more, the very fact that parenting is such a personal and emotive subject means many will naturally resent outsiders offering advice, especially if it's unsolicited.

When parents lash out at non-parents, it's really a reaction to the weight of unrealistic expectations heaped on modern mums and dads, according to parenting psychologist Amanda Gummer.

Child-free people make a convenient scapegoat for those who feel under pressure to be super-parents, she says - especially at a time when many of the social bonds and networks which once were there to assist them have been eroded.

As a result, she adds, many will feel defensive about any commentaries on their parenting style.

"I don't think the media helps," she says. "You have all these self-help books and all these gurus. Parents are feeling under pressure and under scrutiny.

"You don't live next door to granny any more. You're not used to interfering family members giving you advice."

Child-free people may never know what it is like to be a mother or father - but like anyone, they are capable of empathy towards parents and children alike.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    What a silly argument. We don't need to be IN a situation to SEE that situation, and its possible solutions : should we stop letting the UN sort out any conflict because those involved in talks are not firing sarin rockets into towns? Should all those debating rape laws be victims or perpetrators of rape? Do we need to be drug addicts in order to have a valid opinion on drug use? Of course not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    I m an non-parent myself. My way of doing things when caring for them was based on on how i was raised through just rewards for good behaviour without having to bride the kids and never given inn to screaming because they cant get their own way. For me its both a generational issue and how you were raised rather then background (rich or poor) i think some parents of today are lazy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    As a father or four boys I can tell you non parents are clueless, yet that does not stop them from telling we parents how to bring up our own children. What is worse however are the famous celebs who have a child and then are experts telling the rest of us how to bring up our children. Esther Rantzen acted like she was the first woman ever to give birth!

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    Heard Vine's tabloid radio 2 lunchtime prog yesterday discussing this. I, a mother of 3, related to the non-parents on his prog, & cringed at the patronising, smug & helplessly despairing parents who could only repeat "how can you know what it's like til you've..." I know lots of intelligent old & young childless people who empathise, think, observe, & use intelligence, & many parents who don't.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    There are many parents lacking skills despite plenty of experience and many non-parents with plenty of skill but no (or little) experience.
    Is it not ok for the latter to advise the former?
    And remember, a parent is often biased where their children are concerned so some polite home truths about their little angels are often needed albeit rarely welcome this is evident here.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Nice obvious troll from no. 7 there.

    Is this just another BBC advert for Mumsnet?

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    I would say that a childless full-time qualified nanny would be able to give very good advice to the career chasing mother and father of the child she is effectively raising. Ignoring the PC rubbish I would also say that many parents obviously don't have either the education or life experience necessary to be decent parents. Time there was some sort of training and testing for prospective parents.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    I'm pretty sure we've all been children at some point and are therefore qualified at least to have an opinion on what was/wasn't helpful/harmful during our experiences.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    What's wrong with a little outside perspective? As long as you take it with a pinch of salt.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    "The controversial parenting guru Gina Ford does not have any offspring, yet her parenting books are said to account for 25% of the entire market."
    Well that book's going straight in the bin when I get home.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    How is the comment sexist? Because it was directed at a woman!?

    If she was black, would that comment be described as racist?

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    The Liberator
    As a mother of 2 (Single) on benefits (Job Seekers) I for one would not take any advice on how to bring up my children for these simple reasons..
    1) I get all the help I need from government benefits
    2) I get free child care
    3) I also have a 52 inch tv that occupies my kids

    blah blah

    Pretending to be a stereotype does a disservice to hard working mums out there without jobs

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Why bnot because its like taking advice on driving a vehicle from a person who has never driven !

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    4.Cate - "........Non-parents have no idea how all-consuming it is."

    You ASSUME non parents have no comparable experience with children, such as looking after friends kids whilst they are in prison for years for just example.......and you claim to be a teacher whilst making such gross assumptions.....!

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    As a non parent, the advice I'd give is purely objective and doesn't take into account the child and the parents, only the situation. Impartial advice like this can be useful but should be taken with a pinch of salt.

    There are no rule books because we're not robots.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Tricky, there is no real reason in principle. While hands on experience can be very valuable, that is not universally a guarantee of good knowledge and behaviour, you only have to see 'parents' abusing their children is just recent news stories. It also depends on the subject, related to children.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    We non-parents have an objectivity parents have lost forever, wether it's regarding their own kids or just children in general. Not saying that means we're entirely unbiased but it does mean we can provide an outside angle parents never again can, so our views can count for something.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    This is the same as every other minister not qualified for the job. A Health minister with no medical training or experience in the NHS; a defence minister who's never served in the armed forces; a chancellor without accountancy or economics experience. They're all the same... useless, but keen to dictate to others.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    "She certainly didn't produce one of her own."

    So was Sarah Teather described by fellow MP Tim Loughton who served alongside her at the Department for Education.

    The remarks were widely condemned as offensive and sexist"

    Offensive possibly but sexist? The remark could equally have been addressed to a man.

    Whoever described them as sexist is a buffoon.

  • Comment number 9.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.


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