Creating the super-nanny state

Post-It messages about last summer's riots such as "Stop burning my city"

Whenever there is some incident of juvenile delinquency or youth crime you will hear the same refrain: "Well, I blame the parents."

And the evidence is that the parents are indeed likely to have played a significant part in the anti-social behaviour of their offspring.

So should the state intervene in the upbringing of the nation's children, offering intensive support and advice to all parents? Should it play the role of surrogate nanny?

At the moment, parents who cannot control their kids may end up being ordered to take classes in good parenting by the courts. But the links with the criminal justice system mean that parenting classes have a stigma attached to them.

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One mum told me the mandatory classes had changed her life; her children told me they had been given a new mum”

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Attendance is often poor, and those that do go represent a fraction of families who could benefit from help and advice. The support is only available after the damage has been done.

About 10 years ago, I reported on a class arranged for the parents of truants. Even though many of those due to attend had been ordered to go by a court, almost no-one turned up. I remember a huge plate of doughnuts sitting uneaten on a table.

However, one mum was there - furious that the others hadn't bothered. She explained to me that she had resented the mandatory classes at first, but how ultimately the classes had changed her life. Her children, aged about 11 and nine, told me they had been given a new mum.

So the government wants to make attending parenting classes a normal part of being a good parent - something that every new mum or dad does. All parents could benefit from some good advice, it is argued, and only by making support a mainstream part of starting a family can those who need help most be encouraged to participate.

Officer with Greater Manchester Police's "Shop a Looter" billboard Blame the parents?

To create that cultural change, they want to build the capacity for a thriving commercial market in parenting advice. If pilot schemes prove successful, free vouchers worth £100 will be given to all parents of children under five in England and Wales - available from Boots on the High Street. The idea is that, once evaluated providers are up and running, the state can pull back from universal vouchers and target state help on those with specific problems.

There is another side to this initiative too. From an expectant mother's first scan in an NHS hospital at about 12 weeks, future parents will get texts and emails linking to information films and advice directly relating to the development of their child at that point.

From conception to the first three months of life, I am told, there will more than 100 separate video or advice notifications for parents. This is an intensive programme based on strong evidence that helping parents form strong attachments to their children in the very early days and supporting them through the stresses and strains of family life can significantly improve the life chances of children.

Experts at the National Antisocial Behaviour Clinic based at London's Maudsley Hospital draw a direct line between poor parenting and a range of social problems including educational under-achievement, criminality and drug misuse.

Newborn baby in nappy Right... what now?

But they also suggest that support works. A 10-year clinical trial into the Incredible Years parenting scheme has begun to show significantly improved outcomes for those youngsters whose parents had taken part.

Ministers are very anxious to avoid the accusation that the good parenting advice amounts to the nanny state. The prime minister has described it instead as "the sensible state".

"It's ludicrous that we should expect people to train for hours to drive a car or use a computer, but when it comes to looking after a baby we tell people to just get on with it. And to those who say that government should forget about parenting and families and focus on the big, gritty issues, I'd say these are the big, gritty issues."

Changing social norms is never quick and is never easy - ministers talk about trying to initiate a generational shift in attitudes. There are clear benefits in improving the nation's parenting skills. The question is whether the state has a role as super-nanny.

Mark Easton Article written by Mark Easton Mark Easton Home editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 31.


    I think this government can be legitimately criticised on this issue.

    In opposition they opposed this kind of 'nanny state' intervention. Now they are in office they are spending taxpayer money on it.

    It is the inconsistency they show in their attitudes, not the policy itself, that leaves them wide open.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    @27, it is not just 17-year-olds. I'm 26 with an engineering degree and I would be better off as a single parent.

    However, when me and my partner are ready to be parents, I / we may well want to go to parenting classes as we live far away from our own families, and cannot necessarily rely on their help, support or advice.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    Why has the BBC opened two Comments sections on this same story?

    Goverment (not just DC) is damned if they do (nanny state) and damned if they don't (not addressing growing problem etc...).

    Most people have been going to pre-natal classes for decades: is this nanny state or just offering sensible help?

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    I don't have a problem with this programme - parenting must be one of the most difficult things people do, yet they get no training. Anyone who did not observe a good example from their own parents could do with the opportunity for some help.

    On the other hand ... how is this consistent with the tories previously expressed objections to the 'nanny state' ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    I take your point, but around where I live, a 17-year-old girl can get a job and barely scrape by, or get pregnant and get a free house and plenty of money for fags, booze, iphone, huge TV, holidays etc. It's not the £20 a week that influences people, it's the lifestyle they can enjoy by choosing kids as a career. It maddens me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    Charities such as Home-Start train volunteer parents to work on a weekly basis with a vulnerable family with young children offering emotional support and parenting advice. This model works well as it is parents supporting parents and not the state telling parents how to behave. The government should be increasing funding for these organisations which have a proven record of success.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    The greatest cause of youth crime is FATHERLESSNESS. 67% of divorces are filed by women, most of which have little to do with domestic violence (which scholarly research studies such as that of Dr. Murray Straus show is largely reciprocal and only affects a minority of couples). The government should enforce meaningful contact between the father and his children. Men are crucial to family life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    lizmcp writes: "The only long-term solution is to take away financial incentives to have more kids."

    People who don't make good parents don't carefully consider and plan the pros and cons of having children. Child benefit is not an incentive, it's a safety net that we extend in the hope that children might not have a completely hopeless start in life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Parenting living in leafy, wealthy, quiet suburb surrounded by aspirational families and schools is a very different ball game to parenting living on a rough estate in a run-down area that has little or no industry. Children learn by copying, and unless parents can bring up healthy happy children without any contact with the outside world the parents are never the only ones copied.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    I wonder at what stage these lessons would be given. I can see that help in dealing with a new baby would be useful, but will the lessons continue, and therefore still be there to help with the troublesome toddler, child, or hormone riddled teenager? Or am I looking too many parliaments ahead...

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    #20 - No, these parents are producing the next generation of benefits claimants. It's the parents who don't need to have classes who are producing future taxpayers, and they are also preparing for their own future needs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    At first I was put off by this article, but then I thought - when we have a situation where so many children are having children - it may not be a bad idea; after all, who will teach them to parent, break the cycle? Also parents coming together, sharing ideas is supportive.
    We tend to forget: the next generation will be the generation that sees to our welfare...

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Parenting quality comes from how the parents are, not what they do. Unfortunately, by the time someone is old enough to have a child, how they are is already determined. It's no wonder people don't show up to the meetings - the people who would bother are those who don't need to go. The only long-term solution is to take away financial incentives to have more kids.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    13.Cecren "child protection referrals have dropped and childhood obesity rates risen"
    Are you serious? Social workers have never had heavier caseloads, partly due to Baby P but also the inclusion of so-called obesity (oh, am I sick of hearing that nasty little word) as a CP issue. It isn't; it's a big fat con / moral panic based on manipulated definitions and rates which stoped rising 5yrs ago.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    DC justifies this on the basis that people have to have lessons in other 'life skills' (like driving). Thing is, you have to take tests in these things before you are allowed to do them. How long before there is a parenting skills test to be passed before you can have children . . :-)

    Actually, apart from being another way of giving the private sector public money, could work for some people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Over the last ten years or so the top earners in this country have increased their wealth by more than enough to pay off the national debt, yet the poorest have seen year on year reductions in income. Until that huge wealth inequality is put right poor parenting, crime and neglect will inevitably increase, despite all these feeble middle-class initiatives.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    I'll admit I'm not a parent but it does sound like a sensible idea, especially as the evidence confirms the link between anti-social behaviour and weak parenting skills. How do we expect parents to learn the right skills if we aren't prepared to teach them?

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    This government promised to address fathers rights allowing increased contact for children to see their dads. The government have to understand the value and vital importance the role of the father is in families. As yet it has failed to do this and until it does there will be children growing up in fatherless families which will no doubt increase the risk of childrens behavioural problems

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Since the last government got rid of the health visitors, this issue has become more and more important. Timely child protection and special needs referrals have dropped and childhood obesity & dental decay rates have risen . The most needy areas are the worst served. This ill informed initiative is an weak attempt to try and recreate a proper, home and community based health visiting service.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    This really beggars belief. Do they really think the parents who leave their offspring to bring themselves up will bother to attend these classes or respond to texted tips on how to improve their parenting? Unless these proposed £100 vouchers can be exchanged for something aspirational they will gather dust on the shelves of Boots. That at least is good news for the poor beleaguered tax payer.


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