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 168.

    Everyone is capable of giving advice.

    Whether or not that advice is useful is another question, but the fact is that often good advice comes from people without experience in the subject as it opens your mind up to ways of thinking that your own routines prohibit or complicate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 167.

    Some people have cited teachers as an example of someone who may not have children and yet has a professional understanding of them. As a primary school teacher I'm afraid I have to say that this isn't always the case, and I know many parents agree.

  • rate this

    Comment number 166.

    As someone who doesn't have children of her own, but was fully hands on as a young teenager in the rearing of two siblings and who is the product of some top class parenting - do I get a say?

  • rate this

    Comment number 165.

    I am childless, but I am a teacher. I spend more time with children than the parents do. Advice is usually well- intended. Getting an outside perspective is healthy since parents might get caught up in emotions. We all have something to learn and we all have something to teach others, parents and non-parents alike.

  • rate this

    Comment number 164.

    Probably parenting classes should be mandatory for would-be parents! Some people are not and never will be fit to be a parent and maybe should be stopped by the law from ever being so!

  • rate this

    Comment number 163.

    "An MP has apologised after making reference to the childlessness of former children and families minister Sarah Teather.
    She certainly didn't produce one of her own."

    However she probably has insight into the bleak future of the Liberal Democrats. Who are surely going to be ConDemed to the political wilderness for decades courtesy of their lies to the electorate following the last election.

  • rate this

    Comment number 162.

    Everyone has a a stake in society. Everyone on the planet had a mum and a dad. So everyone has insights. How those are given, or whether you might wish to keep your opinions to yourself, is a much more delicate matter!

  • rate this

    Comment number 161.

    151. Buzzcore Crew
    "No, the best advice comes from medical professionals." - Agree, if you're talking about medical subjects.
    Regarding other parents, it probably depends on your own peer group and the subject you're talking about, I wouldn't take dietary advice from a parent with obese kids.

  • rate this

    Comment number 160.

    My antenatal class teacher told us that she found midwives and teachers often found adjusting to parenthood the most difficult, because they were used to giving the child back at the end of the day. Nothing can really prepare you for the relentlessness of being a parent.

  • rate this

    Comment number 159.

    To 127.acs_consult, that's your choice (and being the mum of a 2 year old, there I times I don't blame you!) but don't malign people who do have children. My child will pay taxes when he starts his working life. Those taxes will contribute to your upkeep in retirement!

  • rate this

    Comment number 158.

    Justine Roberts, Mumsnet's chief executive .... "It's about understanding how irritating toddlers are."

    A lot of people are irritating, Ms Roberts. It might be better to keep your irritating opinions about young children to yourself.

  • Comment number 157.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 156.

    Would you take career advice from a fresh school leaver who has no work/life experience? Would you take medical advice from someone who has no medical qualifications? Would you take business advice from someone who has no experience running a business? Would you take legal advice from someone who has no legal experience? Get the gist...

  • rate this

    Comment number 155.

    Is there a netmums and a mumsnet?

  • rate this

    Comment number 154.

    Seeing as I now have to pay to feed others kids, think I can have a say.

  • rate this

    Comment number 153.

    The biggest mistake of any "parental advice" is thinking all kids are the same.

    You can try different things with your kids to see if they "work", but there's no guarantee that they should.

    Each child is an individual not a programmable robot.

  • rate this

    Comment number 152.

    Non parents giving advice is a little like football fans giving advice to footballers from their place in the stands. They often think they know what they're saying, but often they're not seeing things the way the person on the pitch is seeing them. And, only one of these two groups is putting all the effort in.

  • rate this

    Comment number 151.


    No, the best advice comes from medical professionals. Regardless of whether or not they have kids themselves.

    A non-parent is the best person to give advice to a parent, because parents act irrationally about their children. Some parents refuse to even acknowledge their kids are overweight despite being obese, others are so ignorant that they think D+V warrants 999 calls.

  • rate this

    Comment number 150.

    Well I'll not give advice to parents when we stop paying for your kids tax credits...seems fair?

  • rate this

    Comment number 149.

    @135 Money
    . . . And there is me thinking it is very selfish to have more than 2 children ( or whatever actual number it takes to keep the world population constant).
    This world is critically overpopulated, and bringing extra children into a world that can't seem to feed those it already has must surely be irresponsible.

    Your remark is also sexist. Women should have an equal say.


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