Saturday, 14 February 2015

benignly neglectful: rising above the madness of modern parenting

Zoe Williams has been promoting her new book: The Madness of Modern Parenting, of late. Have you come across anything? It sounds really interesting. If you've missed it, you can find her Guardian article here.

She discusses two big kyriarchical issues, which I'm going to talk about a bit here, before talking about my attempts at 'benign neglect'.

So the first thing that Zoe talks about which interests me, is the rise in patriarchal control of pregnant women, much of it based on little or no research, indeed, a lack of research is often given as the reason for the control. When I was first pregnant and learning the rules of what I was allowed to eat, I asked my midwife if yoghurt was allowed? "Well," she said, "I don't like yoghurt, so I'd say no." I therefore did some research of my own and ate yoghurt. I also ate peanut butter, despite being instructed not to, because all the evidence showed that eating peanut butter would reduce the risk of peanut allergy, and I didn't want to have that. Happily, the Dept of Health have now changed that advice, but it's always worth remembering that they continued to advise women not to eat peanut butter in pregnancy after the evidence showed that that was bad advice.

I didn't eat soft cheese, although a friend did, because the risks were really very low. I also didn't drink at all, because when I tried a glass of wine it went straight to my head. There is no evidence to show that small quantities of alcohol are bad for a foetus, and recent tightening of advice on this is just another aspect of the way women's bodies are being policed during pregnancy.

Of course, women's bodies are always policed - we are supposed to be slim, and tidy, and manicured, but during pregnancy this gets really out of hand, with all and sundry advising you on what you can drink, what you can eat, and commenting on the size of you.

The next issue Zoe raises, which I'm going to talk about is the demonising of poor people as 'bad parents'. I don't quite agree with Zoe on the lack of research about how good breastfeeding is (because I spent a few years in breastfeeding research, and really it is amazing for mum and baby, and we are finding out more good stuff all the time), but I do agree that middle class women are more likely to breastfeed than working class women, and that health issues which affect more working class babies are not all about how they are fed. I think that there are also likely to be issues around working class women having to work difficult hours, and living in overcrowded housing, which will impact on their babies health, and on their ability to breastfeed. Also, working class women's bodies are even more heavily policed than middle class women's bodies, because of currently popular dialogues about undeserving poor, and it just isn't appropriate for all women to breastfeed in all situations. Zoe argues that poor women who go out to work when their child is very young are demonised as bad parents, and are also blamed as bad for not breastfeeding. This is part of the way in which poor people are made to be responsible for their own fate, and the constant cutting of benefits etc. is justified by the rich. Although I'm not sure how this fits with the 'hard working families' rhetoric.

Zoe also talks about the middle class mother's like me, who are able to look after their own children, being expected to be over-protective. My mother certainly thinks that's true, and we are more protective of our children than her generation was. I would never leave my children home alone, however briefly, but we were regularly left at home while a parent went to the shop, or to the pub. It didn't do me any harm, but I still wouldn't do it.

My mother is a great believer in benign neglect. She reckons that my son would never have squirted household cleaner in my daughter's face (because of the bubbles), if we hadn't kept the cleaning cupboard locked. There's an article here from Rowan Pelling about her brand of benign neglect, and why she feels it's worked for her.

I don't agree with my Mum about the cupboard, and I wouldn't have been without my child gates on the stairs, because I think you've got to fit your parenting to the children you've got. Some need more protection from harm than others, some are more curious. You know, children are people, and you have to deal with the people you've got.

Screen time!
That said, I am trying to be more benignly neglectful:

  • To ease off a bit on the screen time limits (because minecrafting is great collaborative stuff, which can give my kids a sense of flow, and a creative challenge), although I can't ease off completely, because then they would remain in their jammies all day, playing computer games, and I've tried that and it's ugly. My children are like puppies. They need to be walked each day.
  • I am trying to stay out of arguments. I want the children to resolve their disagreements themselves, so when I hear the fighting start, I try really hard to leave them to it. I generally get a visitor soon after to report what their sibling did (often two visitors), and then I try to say "what do you think you should do about that?" However, often fights are because someone's over-tired, or grumpy about something else, and in those situations, especially with the youngest (4), it's kinder, I feel, to distract them with something else. Get them something else to play with, so they don't have to bug their sibling.
  • I am trying to ignore minor bumps. You know if it's anything serious pretty rapidly. All those tumbles while running along generally seem to be ignored by the child themselves if I don't give them much attention. So I don't go running over, I just walk, and as I get to them I say "up you get", and I carry on walking. Usually it works. The other day it worked, and it was only later we realised my daughter had cut her knee. With no fuss whatever.
If you're a parent, what do you do to be benignly neglectful? And what do you think you should chill out about?