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."

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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 128.

    I think there is a huge case for Parenting classes , why should all people who have kids have all the skills needed to give them the best chance in life.......

    They don't. The problem is that the only people who would go, are the ones who don't really need to go. The rest couldn't be bothered, just as they couldn't be bothered about their kids - that's school/council/govt/TV's job.

  • rate this

    Comment number 127.

    As a woman with no children and not a lot of patience it is precisely because I know how irritating toddlers are that I chose not to have any of my own! I feel however perfectly entitled to have an opinion on how a child behaves in a public place. That is nothing to do with parenting but exclusively to do with good manners and consideration for others.

  • rate this

    Comment number 126.

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

    Simply because they are obnoxious "class fascists", same as some graduates who think they are above all others, because they have taken a specific route to knowledge.
    In main, their arguments fall down & they just attempt to out shout any other points/evidence that disagrees with them.
    Worthy of a certificate of muppetry

  • rate this

    Comment number 125.

    Yes, non-parents certainly can give some good advice - sometimes non-parents can see the problem from the outside. But proceed with caution, there's nothing worse than receiving "sage advice" from someone without a grasp of the real issue!
    Best advice comes from the parents of kids slightly older than your own.

  • rate this

    Comment number 124.

    There are many things in life that I will never do, but that doesn't mean I can't in many cases recognise when they are being done particulary well or particularly badly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 123.

    Think of having children from a different angle.

    Everyone saying "they" want a child is also giving that child a death sentence. (albeit 70 years or so down the line)

    That reason among many others is why I will not have children.

  • rate this

    Comment number 122.

    For me true empathy can only come if you have been in that persons' shoes.
    You may not need to be a mother or father but you need to look after children to really understand how a parent feels.
    So Sarah Teather probably would not qualify but an experienced nursery worker would.

  • rate this

    Comment number 121.

    Having 5 children and denied to raise them by the baby mamas I think that this country doesnt give protection to us fathers

    My children are5 from different mothers, but unless you father children with these ladies will leave us

    My point is, dont take no advice from women, hyprocrites

  • rate this

    Comment number 120.

    The discussion seems to centre on whether the advice is worthwhile and welcome. They don't go together.
    Wise teachers sometimes say:
    Tell me something, I'll probably ignore it.
    Show me something, I may remember it.
    Help me do something for myself and I'll understand.

    You don't need to be a parent to make that work.

  • rate this

    Comment number 119.

    Stop Press! - 'Man says something vaguely offensive to a woman'.
    Julia Gillard must be looking at this and thanking her lucky stars she got off so lightly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 118.

    Parenting advice from a non-parent has got to be comparable to a painter giving medical advice to a doctor. If you haven't got or raised kids of your own, how on earth can you advise parents?

    And the argument "I used to be a child myself" is right at the pathetic end of pathetic-ness. We were ALL children once.

  • rate this

    Comment number 117.

    If you were once a child, you can advise people who are parents, so clearly not everyone can do it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 116.

    "Personally I think unless you have the experience I do not see how anyone can offer advice on anything irrespective of the subject because without that experience the perspective and belief system are very different"
    Ive never been to the moon but I sugest they take more fuel than needed for the journey "for emergencies". Oh look, I had an valid opinion without experience.

  • rate this

    Comment number 115.

    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!


    I agree, Myleene Klass was exactly the same after the birth of her first child.

  • rate this

    Comment number 114.

    As a parent, I very quickly figured out what most parents with any common sense figure out - there is NOBODY who can give YOU advice on how to raise YOUR child. It's generalisations that cause many problems with raising children. One size does not fit all. You have to work out what works for your family - but some can't be bothered, rely on third-party advice, and people wonder what went wrong.

  • rate this

    Comment number 113.

    I'd say childless people give the best advice of all. When people become parents they seem to lose all memory of their own childhoods, what they got upto and what it did or didn't do to them.

    Having a child changes you, it makes you protective of your child sometimes to the point of irrationality, sometimes so much so that you're doing more harm than good to their upbringing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 112.

    There are plenty of childless professionals or good friends that are sometimes able to give good quality advice to parents. I think that it is how the avdvice is give, was it solicited, come from a caring place help or just criticism. But if a family minister needs a family, then the chancellor should be an accountant, health minister a medic, education minister a teacher etc...

  • rate this

    Comment number 111.

    Bringing up kids is common sense - the problem modern parents face is because lots of "modern parents" don't have any common sense......

    The act of conception doesn't suddenly make you brilliant at bringing up children LOL.....so whether you are a parent or not has nothing to do with it IMO

    Kids are expensive and rob you of your free-time....so I opted out....and I am very glad I did =)

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    Yes, I'm sure people who are not parents themselves are capable of giving advice. They can see what some 'so called parents' are oblivious to ie. bad behaviour !!

    I am a parent and to be honest if there was any valuable advice offered to me and needed by me, it would not matter if the person was a parent or not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    I think the important thing is to watch right TV programs where you listen to what is said

    The USA from what I have seen on TV are better parents than most of us

    It looks like the majority here haven't got sky and thus may dismiss my comment as a wind up

    If you listened to me and tried you will be as a good a parent as me

    They find the exams easy as well


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