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.

You can follow the Magazine on Twitter and on Facebook

 

More on This Story

In today's Magazine

Comments

This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
 
  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 688.

    684 baz
    I didn't witness what you did; I may have misinterpreted your description. My point is, another mum judged my situation & concluded a bad outcome; her prediction was not right.
    Rudely demanding is not acceptable, but a child requesting an element of power in a situation could be exercising their sense of self in a good way, though it may look odd to others. Citizenship is learnt & earnt.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 687.

    686 Stuart
    I made the point earlier a little less directly, but what do you remember about being 3 years old, or any younger?
    If like me that is absolutely nothing, then how can you possibly pass on any advice that is in any way valid?
    "Having once been a child" is the worst criteria for advice givers I have heard of.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 686.

    All children are different, all parents are different.

    Everyone is capable of giving advice to parents because...

    EVERYONE WAS ONCE A CHILD!!

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 685.

    We learned to ignore all advice from non-parents. This lesson is perhaps the most valuable one we can pass on to first time parents. Our 2 wk old was in A&E with jaundice. When the (childness but otherwise excellent) pediatrician had finished her advice on breast feeding the (mother of 4) nurse came over with a bottle and said "feed him every time his mouth is open" It probably saved his life.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 684.

    680. RainLight

    My point was that mother in the Docs should have told the child either sit on my knee or stand, she didn't, she was the adult she should not have let her child dictate the situation, a rod for the mothers back.

    All the child learnt was that she had more power than the mother and would be more determined to win next confrontation.

 

Comments 5 of 688

 

Features

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.