March 8, 2013 7:35 pm

Hovering parents, unite!

Claire Perry MP says we devote too much time to parenting. But isn’t that better than not enough?
Illustration by Lucas Varela of two parents carry their child riding a sedan chair©Lucas Varela

Like most people I can never get enough of being lectured by a member of the government on how I could be a better parent. This week’s top tips came from Claire Perry who, as well as being an MP and former McKinsey-ite, is apparently the prime minister’s adviser on the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood – or, to put it another way, the-things-ain’t-what-they-used-to-be tsar. But still, thank heavens for Claire. Too many ministers are not there for us when we take major child-rearing decisions. We’ve been waiting two months for Eric Pickles to tell us if the boy can have a new skateboard.

There were two main thrusts to Perry’s comments as she scanned the beastly world through her Cath Kidston spectacles. First, parents are “hovering” over their kids, orchestrating their activities, so they reach university unable to cope without mum. The second is that we are leaving them to surf the internet unaware of the pornographic “digital oblivion” that awaits. Sharp-eyed readers may spot the contradiction here. On the one hand, parents are fussing over their kids; on the other, they are not monitoring their computer usage. Being advised on parenting by a Conservative MP, it seems, is a bit like being lectured by your gran – that heady combination of “don’t fuss so, dear” and “they never had no internet in my day”.

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Robert Shrimsley

Perry also favours being able to check on your kids’ text messages and emails. So making sure they do their homework properly – bad; spying on their private conversation with friends – good. Too bad we can’t fit the little blighters with GPS tracking chips, eh?

She added, with that air of condescension perfected by politicians when telling voters how to behave, that “good parenting isn’t just making sure they come top at maths”. Gee, thanks Claire. I’d assumed that once I got the spawn out ahead on trigonometry my work was done. Perhaps it is the management consultant in her – darling, you could be 16 per cent more productive with just a 4 per cent clawback of parental involvement. Remember, poppet, it’s outputs not inputs.

Even trying to be fair to Perry, I struggle to believe the biggest issue in modern parenting is really the people who devote too much time to their children. We all know parents who fit that overprotective mould; I was raised in a Jewish household – you don’t have to explain active parenting to me. But surely the bigger problem is parents not having enough time for their kids beyond the day to day admin, either because they work or – in the worst cases – because they take too little interest. Life for most parents I know is less overbearing patriarch than 24-hour concierge.

In any case kids can cope with run-of-the-mill parental hassle. They know it is part of the process and assume we’ll grow out of it. What they won’t accept easily is unreasonable intrusion. So instead of lamenting the irreversible ills of the modern world and setting GCHQ on your offspring, it might be smarter to build the kind of trusting relationship in which you can influence their actions even as they become more independent.

The easy access to porn is worrying, and if Perry has some sensible measures to make it less easily accessible, we’ll all salute her. But again the challenge seems less about trying to hold back the tide of porn – teens will find it sooner or later – than ensuring that they understand that the extremities of the internet are not real life and not the sex of a respectful relationship.

The real “digital oblivion” is that the internet has removed boredom – and the imaginative creativity it fostered – from children’s lives. There is always something to do, a film to watch or game to play. They do not need to meet up with friends because they can play online. The spawn could spend a day in front of a computer screen if we let them. Fortunately, because we are the type of tiresome parents of whom Perry disapproves, we make them find other things to do.

And, yes, we make sure they are doing their homework because while Perry is right that good parenting isn’t just about coming top at maths, it wouldn’t be the worst outcome.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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