The Mumsnet Rules, by Natasha Joffe and Justine Roberts, Bloomsbury, RRP£12.99, 416 pages
This week a government-backed review into the sexualisation of childhood recommended new curbs on “sexy” clothing sold to small children, proper enforcement of a watershed on television, and a ban on outdoor advertising featuring sexual imagery close to schools and playgrounds.
The review was carried out by Reg Bailey, chief executive of the Mothers’ Union. But the real impetus for change to protect children from the “pornification” of society came from a far more modern, and powerful, mothering phenomenon – the website Mumsnet.com.
Mumsnet, founded in 2000, has quietly become a huge force in Britain. More than 2.5m people visit it each month. It has developed a campaigning, political voice. Its own “Let Girls be Girls” campaign against the sexualisation of childhood began early in 2010 – and the new government listened. During last year’s general election (dubbed by newspapers as “the Mumsnet election”) and in the subsequent Labour party leadership campaign, candidates queued up to display their family-friendly credentials with online chats. (Gordon Brown famously got into trouble with the Mumsnetters by refusing to answer a question about his favourite type of biscuit.)
But beyond its public function as a rallying point at the nexus of the parental and political, Mumsnet has also developed into a force in the home. In a secular, fragmented society, it unifies isolated mothers who often don’t have their own families nearby.
It is where mothers go for help, and to ask for anonymous judgment on our own (and others’) behaviour. I have found it a constant and reassuring presence in the mire of child-rearing, its message boards brimming with “crowd-sourced” advice (whether asked for or not), opinion, and some fantastic barminess. The joy of Mumsnet is that people say things on its messageboards that they would never dare utter to another’s face.
Now Natasha Joffe and Justine Roberts (the latter is one of the site’s founders) have collated the brutally frank wisdom of Mumsnetters, digested it and added some non-patronising linking narrative to produce The Mumsnet Rules, a reassuringly thick book with an old-fashioned look that evokes those popular “Keep Calm and Carry On” posters. It speaks of austerity, wholesomeness and of giving parents confidence in an uncertain world. It is also (and this is the key attraction of Mumsnet itself) very funny.
This is not a parenting book in the dull “how to” sense. It doesn’t tell you how to make your child sleep through the night, or how to drill him to become a musical prodigy. It is, rather, an etiquette guide for families in the 21st-century world.
There is a ready market of angsty middle-class mothers in search of “rules”. Joffe and Roberts have divided these into sections. The most important are the Golden Rules (“Don’t give up work for your children” but also “Don’t buy a guinea pig for your child”). Others cover Health and Safety (“Let them eat dirt”) and School Gates (including the intriguing “They don’t turn into pimps and hos because of sex ed” and the more prosaic but practical: “You are not six: don’t worry about other parents at the school gates.”).
The authors say they came up with the rules “by reading a hundred different people’s views on controlled crying, on the contents of party bags, on how to help a child who has no friends, you find there is usually a common-sense consensus around the important things ... “
There’s a bossy tone throughout. I rather like it, but it might irk others. Joffe, Roberts and their Mumsnetters are not afraid to tell mothers to get over ourselves. On the vexing issue of party bags, for example: “It is just a universal truth that modern children will tend to look puzzled and disappointed if there is no party bag, so really there is no point getting too crabby and self-righteous ... ” Instead, we learn how to fill a party bag for £1.
Discussions of party bags and playdates (feed the children shop-bought pizza, don’t bother with cooking) may seem petty. But the reality is that these are the things that sometimes keep us awake, just as much as the more important stuff – also covered here – about our children’s behaviour and friendships and health.
Isabel Berwick is associate editor of FT Life & Arts