Abstract: A discussion into how parenting is fixated in a new era of Paranoia and why this may be the case. I will not only use Furedi’s work into paranoid parenting, but it will also explore other key scholars in this area such as Anneke Meyer 2007, Helene Guldberg 2009 and Jones Phil 2009. By focussing on societal perceptions of children in modern day Britain, this being how children are viewed as innocent and vulnerable and how this may have further encouraged paranoid parenting. Alongside using modern day examples of how this era of paranoia surrounding risk and child safety is not only being perpetuated by the media, in politics and through everyday discourses; but how it is affecting parents and more so could possibly be detrimental to children’s well-being. The essay will explore the Anti-Vax movement which is a clear example of how parental paranoia could be detrimental to a child’s wellbeing. In doing this, it attempts to answer why although “Trust yourself” (Baby and Childcare 1946) is the opening to one of the bestselling and popular baby books this is not the rhetoric that parents are receiving in todays culture of paranoia
Do we truly live in a “paranoid parenting” era? An Exploration into Furedi’s (2002, 2008) claim that parenting culture is marked by a sense of paranoia around risk and child safety.
When Evaluating Furedi’s claim that parenting culture is marked by a sense of paranoia around risk and child safety. It is key to understand that parenting is in fact a social construction as although one can be a parent, the act of parenting differs between cultures and times; for instance, there has been a shift in the way we view children from the 60-70s to today. In the 60-70s children were viewed in a way that turned them into little adults in need of hardening to the world. We see this in the work of Edwards and Gilles 2013 where they consider and interview parents of the 60s. The parents interviewed often allowed children to play outside on their own and if injuries occurred it was the older children’s responsibility, this allowed children to form not only positive interactions with peers but also develop an innate sense of danger. However, in current society children are viewed as innocent and therefore vulnerable and this suggests it is the parent’s responsibility to protect their child from the outside world. As Furedi argues “good parenting now seems to mean protecting children from the experiences of life” (Furedi 2002 Pg.8).
Similarly, in today’s society we witness the sacralisation of childhood (Anneke Meyer 2007) meaning childhood has been made into a sacred process, by doing this we have made children more vulnerable and lost the potential of children themselves. Although children are innately vulnerable in many aspects of life such as their physical stature and social skills, we have created a structural vulnerability in children which means in the social hierarchy children’s needs have been reduced and their rights made of more importance. This shows the social structure of children has been made vulnerable as laws surrounding children’s abuse cases are often extreme and Meyer argues rightly so. For example, in theories relating to internet grooming this protection of children’s innocent virtue is key in the domain of children. This is a challenging discourse to avoid as even though studies have proven children are not only computer literate but often more so than their parents and have also internalised the idea of stranger danger this should encourage parents and others to see children as safe on the internet. But the contrary has occurred and a call to make the internet safer for children has been within public discourses for the last 10 years. (Anneker Meyer 2007) Here we witness a denial of resilience that Furedi argues dominate public discourse around children and further encourages paranoia.
Society itself is now in a constant state of risk, whether this be from new dangers forming through embryonic modernity or through the new perceived risk. This idea of perceived risk is possibly the most profound form of risk in society, whereby the new participatory nature of society has encouraged individuals to conduct their own risk management leaving a sense of constant but latent fear (Slovik 1993), this idea of perceived risk has begun to seep into every aspect of life but one social group that is possibly the most affected is parents. In a new era of parenting actions of parents especially of mothers are scrutinised, this may be because of the prominent ideas regarding infant determinism. Infant determinism is a fairly new concept in popular discourse, it arose in the late 1990s and was perpetuated by Hillary Clinton. The theory of infant determinism suggests that actions of parents in the first few weeks, months and years of children’s lives has profound affects on their outcome in later life. The well-known advice is the beginning three year of a child’s life determines the child’s patterns of behaviour in further childhood and life itself (Helene Guldberg 2009) this has led to an extreme amount of pressure being added onto parents. Guldberg considers a MORI poll that asked more than 1000 adults about their views on parenting it found that almost a quarter of parents worry constantly whether or not they are parenting effectively. This has led to parents seeking advice from science reviews and studies on how to parent. These reviews provide enormous amount of information which parents obtain many of which are contradictory and perpetuate risk; whether these risks are small scale risks such as food, play and exercise to more severe risks and fears such as paedophilia and abduction parents still fear they are doing the wrong thing. Furedi 2002 argues that the well-intended advice parents receive are actually hindering rather than helpful. He suggests for every mainstream study there is a small obscure one that contradicts it that is shown in the news. Not only this but parents are then being deemed as incompetent a study of 1025 parenting articles and advice columns in the US indicated that parents were presented as the problem in 97% of the entries whilst they were deemed the problem the article also indicate they do not have the competence to deal with them. 68% of the articles said they should listen to the experts leading them in a cycle of confusion and paranoia.
This Paranoia occurs because the media, politics and wider society are attracted to stories relating to children and these present negative stories which further perpetuate fear. It has been found that the media including news stories and reports use the term ‘alarmingly’ far too frequently in work relating to children, reports that often state they have a lack of reliable sources and facts still conclude that their findings are alarming. Furedi argues this leads once again to increased amount of paranoia regarding issue relating to children and pressure for parents to change their parenting methods here we see campaigns that target parent’s behaviour rather than to fix the underlying issue or accept these ‘detrimental’ issues such as eating too much sugar as a part of life for children. This combined with the masses of contradicting information transforms normal parental anxieties into complete paranoia causing parents to come to the conclusion that the only method to ensure children’s safety is to keep them in the home as close to them as possible. However, Anneke Meyer 2007 argues that this actually creates a paradox as it potentially puts children in danger because children no longer internalise norms and values surrounding danger and acceptability. Therefore, further perpetuating the possibly negative discourses of children as vulnerable or evil as children are at the heart of the of public opinion and parents are constantly seeking new methods to protect children.
However, Phil Jones considers neglect and emotional abuse, he found that both are defined as fairly common and although these cases are frequently reported in the press public perception remain fairly ambivalent. He found the ambivalence exists even though 50% of parents said they put child protection as the most important cause in society. Suggesting inspite of the increasing levels of concern surrounding neglect in society, the public are hesitant to suggest that state intervention is necessary as children are effectively the private property of their parents. This follows the pattern of loud public outcry related to fear and anxiety however the bystander effect occurs when a child is in need. This suggests that although children are viewed as vulnerable in society the fear and the extent to which society concerns themselves with issues within the home are very limited this suggests that there is an increasing amount of anxiety in society but when it does not relate to our own children or children that we are concerned with it is then an issue outside of the home. This shows that the parental paranoia is a large issue in society and thus children’s concerns are bought to the forefront of public opinion however when danger and abuse is actually occurring perceptions suddenly change and rather than interfering to cause change fear is just further perpetuated. This shows that paranoid parenting and perpetuating fears through the media is negative for not only children who suffer the direct effects of paranoid parenting but also victims of abuse and fears themselves.
A modern-day example of parental paranoia directly harming children is the Anti-vax movement. The Anti-vax movement has been one of the most debated areas in the last few years, it’s a movement that is encouraging parents to not vaccinate their children. The choice to not vaccinate children is often made on the grounds that small scale studies have suggested that vaccines may be a threat to young children and may encourage issues such as paralysis, narcolepsy and the most well-known autism. However, the threats of not vaccinating your children has been made clear in large scale studies and in renowned health journals (Ashley Welch 2019). Fredrickson et al 2004 studied reasons for why parents may have vaccine hesitance, He found that one of the key reasons and often most commonly reported reasons cited, was being influenced by others who refuse vaccines or media reports in popular media that sensationalise the effects of vaccines. This occurs because they are attractive stories especially when the media outlets highlight one key story where vaccines had had a rare and unexpected effect. Therefore, the parents once again have this confused and mass amount of information and the perceived risk that may come alongside vaccination for children are just too large for some parents to feel responsible for. This links in nicely to Helene Guldberg’s argument where parents and authoritarian figures are so focused on seeking out hidden dangers, obvious dangers are over looked as the issues that not being vaccinated can occur as much larger, more common and life threatening than the threats that a present if children are vaccinated. This once again arose from and creates more paranoia for parents to consider. (Helene Guldberg 2009)
The Anti-vax movement also relates to Furedi’s principle of a code of mistrust, he argues if individuals can’t have faith in medical professionals and even those closest to them how can they have faith in those that are distant from themselves. This is an idea that is constantly perpetuated in the media from doctors giving the wrong advice to suspicions of abuse in the family destroying trust in social institutions the effects of this is damaging social groups such as the brownies and scouts to more serious institutions such as schools and police these are suffering at the hands of parental paranoia and fear of harm coming to children As Furedi suggests anyone who comes into contact with children is instantly demonised and stigmatised. We witness this in the return of the medieval chaperone which shows how deeply this mistrust is rooted in society. Because of this fear we witness once again a decline in activities for our children as scout leaders are quitting and even teachers are leaving the roles because of the fear of being demonised. This has clearly led to a flight away from children leaving not only the children at a disadvantage but also the parents as they don’t want to ask for help from outsiders due to fear of abuse. We see this in the Cornell university study that Furedi considers where child rearing time by parents was measured it was found that parents with two children put seven and a half hours per day raising their children which contradicts many of the beliefs in society regarding a new generation of neglectful career orientated parents. (Furedi 2002 Pg. 7)
However, this may not be the result of paranoid parenting but rather a legitimised fear. Pain 2006 argues although some of the increasing fears in society are unhelpful those that are child centred and firmly grounded in particular place in both parents and children’s fears are often on a material and logical basis. She creates this argument based on the need for a materialist explanation of patterns of fear within children, these are often are widely ignored due to this lower social stratification of children, however when considering the children themselves it can be suggested that fears accurately reflect victimisation in specific locations. She notes that Furedi’s work has been hugely influential and successful but criticises his view that Paranoid parenting should enter common discourses as it can be harmful for children who have been victimised and is unhelpful in preventing victimisation further. For example, Pain suggests that fears are often more prominent in poorer areas surrounding risks of ill health, injury and even death but this isn’t because of media perpetuating fears in this area or parents being too highly educated and well read, but rather the opposite, the fear is present because the risk itself is much higher in these areas. This is a massive critique of Furedi as it suggests that although parents have these fears, they are often rational and logical for the risk that affect them.
In conclusion, it is clear that we live in a society that is filled with fears and risks, whether these be perceived or actual risks they still surround and dictates the lives of parents and create a culture of paranoid parenting. Paranoid parenting is clearly a more modern phenomena which is clear as the paranoia around safety and security were not to the same extent in Gilles and Edwards work in the 60s where getting injured was considered an average part of childhood life and parents were not to blame. However, as society has taken on a more scientific view on children and parenting and thus infant determinism has become a more prominent and accepted discourse, more pressure has been put on children to ensure children’s safety and development. However, it appears that these ideas surrounding safety and parental protection have been pushed too far and paranoid parenting now occurs to such an extent the perception of risks are actually damaging to children. Whether this be a lack of scout leaders and less exciting parks (Furedi 2002) or to the more extreme cases of children being unable to perceive risk or even mass movements such as the anti-vax movements to occur. However, as Pain suggests this may not be the result of paranoid parenting but more so logical fears for actual risk and dangers. In saying this it is clear that paranoid parenting is an issue in society and is not only adding extra stress onto parents lives due to the lack of help parents are willing to receive but also is detrimental to the wellbeing of children themselves.
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