Sociologist and author Frank Furedi spoke at the conference Monitoring Parents: Science, Evidence, Experts and the New Parenting Culture, at the University of Kent. An edited version of his speech is published below.
In modern times, there has been something of a revolt against traditional authority. As a result of this, all forms of authority are increasingly being called into question. After all, if the authority of the king and the priest and the politician can be interrogated, why not call into question the authority of pater familias, too, the status of the mother or grandparent?
That is precisely what has happened, gradually, over the past century-and-a-half. A lack of confidence in the ability of ordinary adults to socialise the younger generation has been evident since early modern times. By the late nineteenth century, experts were making scathing remarks about parental competence and were attempting to restrain the authority of the father and mother.
The philosopher John Stuart Mill, author of On Liberty, linked his call for the compulsory schooling of children to his distrust of parental competence. He believed that state-sponsored formal education might free children from the ‘uncultivated’ influence of their parents. He asserted that since ‘the uncultivated cannot be competent judges of cultivation’, they needed the support of enlightened educators to socialise their children.
This lack of confidence in parents’ capacity to develop their children led many nineteenth-century reformers to view formal education as the principal institution of socialisation. In the early twentieth century, educators and child experts sought to bypass parental authority through assuming more and more responsibility for the socialisation of young people. And since the 1990s, the once-implicit questioning of the ability of parents to socialise their children has become explicit, and increasingly strident.
As a result, there has been a shift in the way that the uneasy partnership between family and school is portrayed by experts. Policymakers often assume that poor parenting and the fragmentation of the family are everyday facts of life that make it necessary for public institutions to take responsibility for forms of socialisation that were hitherto carried out in the home.
In the nineteenth century, criticisms of parental incompetence tended to focus on parents’ alleged inability to educate their children. More recently, however, the alleged absence of parental competence has been detected in relation to a growing number of issues: how to nurture, how to stimulate, how to touch, how to discipline, how to discuss questions about sex, death, and so on.
The cumulative consequence of this questioning of parental competence has been the deepening and widening of the idea of a parental deficit. The claim that parents are inept at educating their children, or even nurturing and emotionally stimulating them, suggests that parents are not up to the job of socialising their offspring. In effect, these claims call into question parental authority.
The problem of parental authority
In much of the modern literature on parenting, the erosion of parental authority is often confused with the idea that there has been a decline in old-fashioned, authoritarian families. Too often, authority is confused with authoritarianism, and what is overlooked is that the targeting of parental competence is not about limiting authoritarianism in the home but is about calling into question the ability of mothers and fathers to socialise their children.
Hannah Arendt put matters most starkly when she declared that ‘authority has vanished’. Arendt took it for granted that ‘most will agree that a constant, ever-widening and deepening crisis of authority has accompanied the development of the modern world in our century’. In her view, the crisis of authority was not confined to the political domain – rather, she suggested, this crisis exerts its influence in every aspect of social experience.
She observed that: ‘[T]he most significant symptom of the crisis, indicating its depth and seriousness, is that it has spread to such pre-political areas as child-rearing and education, where authority in the widest sense has always been accepted as a natural necessity, obviously required as much by natural needs, the helplessness of the child, as by political necessity, the continuity of an established civilisation which can be assured only if those who are newcomers by birth are guided through a pre-established world into which they are born as strangers.’
Today, the fact that the contestation of authority dominates the ‘pre-political’ spheres of everyday life is clear from the constant, acrimonious debates over issues such as child-rearing, health, lifestyles and the conduct of personal relationships. The erosion of the legitimacy of pre-political authority has deprived many parents, and adults in general, of the self-confidence to engage in a meaningful way with the younger generation.
Parents are told time and again that their authority rests on outdated assumptions and that they lack the real expertise that one needs to socialise young people. And conscious of the fact that it is difficult to act authoritatively today, parents feel very insecure about rejecting expert advice. The explosion of various child-rearing and pedagogic fads is symptomatic of society’s loss of faith in parental authority; it represents a futile attempt to bypass the question of finding some convincing alternative to old forms of pre-political authority.