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 188.

    I've found my parenting experience invaluable when managing people at work. So maybe it works the other way round :-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 187.

    If you are a new parent who is unsure of how you are to take care of your child. Who would you trust? an older experienced mother or some one who is childless, but thinks they know how to raise a child.

  • rate this

    Comment number 186.

    Before I had my own kids, I remember having strong opinions about the parental choices made by friends. Thank goodness I had the good sense to keep my mouth shut! Until you have survived those sleepless nights, scraping unidentifiable substances from clothing and household surfaces and feeding stomachs that never seem to fill, your thoughts on how to raise kids simply don't count to a parent.

  • rate this

    Comment number 185.

    As a parent, I only have one piece of advice which I give to prospective parents. This is 'go and see all the films/concerts/plays and visit all the restaurants/pubs/cultural attractions that you think you want to see before the baby is born, because you won't have any time to do any of this for years after you become a parent'

    Other than that? Each to their own.

  • rate this

    Comment number 184.

    If I needed legal advice, I'd ask a lawyer. If I needed medical advice, I'd ask a doctor. And so on...
    I am a parent; if I felt it necessary to seek advice then I would ask another parent for their view(s). Someone who doesn't have children would have no understanding of the gut-instinct / "I just know.." feeling that the majority of parents swear by.
    Don't have kids? Don't give parents advice!

  • rate this

    Comment number 183.

    I'd take this a step further; I sometimes find, as a professional 30-something, in a long-term relationship, that my opinions not just on children but on almost all economic and social matters are somewhat diluted because I do not have children. When participating in friendly political discussion with friends and family, I often hear, "well, yes, but you don't have kids though do you..."

  • rate this

    Comment number 182.

    In business I like to assess opinions from people who aren't familiar with my industry to get a fresh view from outsiders who may see things in a totally different light.

    As a non-parent, I see my parent friends battling with problems, and try to help them look at the problem from a different angle. Parents with the same problem may offer better empathy and sympathy, but not always new solutions!

  • rate this

    Comment number 181.

    @135 MONEY is a troll, s/he's already been modded for trolling another HYS today.

    Plus, her grammar is terrible.

  • rate this

    Comment number 180.

    Just because a woman does not have a child does not mean there is no maternal instinct. I have no kids for medical reasons...but I do have 2 nieces and 3 nephews and in fact my sisters do ask my advice and for help from time to time. I think outsider eyes are a good thing in allot of situations.

  • rate this

    Comment number 179.

    There are plenty of non parent people trying to offer advice, but me personally would prefer the advice of a parent who has actually been in the same situation....experience is a good thing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 178.

    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?

    Of course you do Tracy. The difference between you and an inexperienced non-parent person is that you have relevant experience and were responsible for a child so know what you are talking about.

  • rate this

    Comment number 177.

    Why would you give advice on something you have no experience of?
    Unless the parents seeked advice from you, listening is the best help you can give them.
    The report is a funny one, reflects a lot of the UK society - always ready to comment on something even though they only have a broad/limited understanding of what it actually is.

  • rate this

    Comment number 176.

    To those full of advice - surely we need to lead by example, and otherwise just offer support?
    I don't think we should be increasing the world population, but I do think we should love and care for those children we have (even if we're not their parents).
    Also do please spare a thought for those who are childless but never wanted to be?

  • rate this

    Comment number 175.

    Most of the childless people who insisting on giving advice knew nothing of any use. The less they know abour parenting the more advice they wanted to give.The majority of the advice we got from them was bizarre or outright dangerous, from giving hard oven cooked food to toothless babies to 'steaming hot' baths for a six week old. If parents need advice, they can ask professionals.

  • rate this

    Comment number 174.

    All advice on parenting is irritating unless it's been actively sought!

    That said, I agree that some professionals working closely with children will have valuable contributions to make.Nevertheless, parents are typically going to be the best source of advice as 100% of them have knowledge both of what it's like to be childless but also then what the reality of it being a parent is.

  • rate this

    Comment number 173.

    why do some people think they deserve a medal for having kids? Your choice--- live with it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 172.

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

    Because they already cannot cope with or comprehend their own self-righteous arrogant superiority complex, which evidentially suggests that they have some psycological problem that needs remedying.

    Such a perverted view is itself not condusive to being a fully competent person & is likely to indoctrinate their child with same bias

  • rate this

    Comment number 171.

    Depends what you me by 'giving advice'.
    Some general comments about what may be good or not should surely be welcome. But telling a parent exactly how they should bring up their kids is too much.

    We were al kids once, so surely we can all offer a bit of advice?
    I'm a single uncle but my sister values my thoughts about my niece.

  • rate this

    Comment number 170.

    Every child is different. What works for one parent and their child may not work for another. Professionals without children are aware of several methods for the challenges that parenthood brings, and can offer a variety of advice. Advice both can be equally valuable. Every child is different, and what works for one will not work for everyone. It is about finding out what works for you.

  • rate this

    Comment number 169.

    Every child is a UNIQUE SNOWFLAKE and A GIFT FROM GOD.


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