This is our truth, tell us yours
A new law that hopes to protect vulnerable children from harm should be a cause for universal rejoicing, and the proposal to add emotional neglect and cruelty to the law on child neglect seems at first glance to be a good thing. It is of course false that sticks and stones break bones but words never hurt. Words can kill, and cause long-lasting harm to a child. Being belittled, emtioanlly abused, your developmental needs not met can cause long-term damage. Those who say “a smack never did me any harm” may indeed be telling the truth, if the physical punishment was administered by someone who was loving and nurturing the rest of the time. (Although cultural context are vital here, in the world of our grandparents smacking was viewed very differently to today.)
a further category of harm for which the perpetrator could be punished: impairment of “physical, intellectual, emotional, social or behavioural development”.
There are two issues here that make me concerned. The first is the wide-ranging definition of impairment. It is already the case that those who do not conform to accepted white, middle class values are more likely to be taken into care. (22% of the children taken into care are non white when 12 % of the general population is non white.) Ideas about what is developmentally acceptable or even normal vary hugely. I taught for a number of years in South East Asia, starting of in Bushibans. The idea of children as young as 7 attending classes after school until 9 or 10 oclock at night, not just one, but maths class followed by English class might seem wrong to many western eyes. A school day that lasts from 7;30 until 9;30 doesnt leave much time for those middle class ideals of nature walks and baking Mary Berry cupcakes but was considered good parenting, parents went without in order to pay for the classes, and considered them vital.
I am not of course claiming that people would be arrested for sending their children to after school classes, simply highlighting that what is considered good parenting can vary hugely according to socio economic, race, and cultural background. I suppose we will be told to trust social workers, as I have written before, the assumptions they make about children based on their backgrounds does not encourage trust.
Looking at the Rochdale case it doesn’t seem to hard to imagine parents from white working class backgrounds being taken to task for not being good enough, rather than actually being harmful or neglectful. How many music sessions or kindergym attendance makes a good parent? A friend who is a wonderfully nurturing and loving parent was told by their midwife they had concerns about the development of the baby because their living room was not large enough. Now it would take more than 1000 words to cover all my concerns with modern midwifery, and the horror stories I have heard, but this is indicative of the idea that my normal is the only normal, and deviation from it is harmful.
Indeed were I ruler of the universe people who give ipads to 5 year olds and allow small children TVs in their bedrooms would be considered neglectful, but surely this should be about more than the imposition of NCT approved middle class values? Which brings me to my second concern. Social workers can already investigate, and step in when they feel a child is being emotionally neglected, they cannot however punish. I am reminded of a mum when I was involved with Sure Start. I helped implement triple p parenting programs and she was telling me what a difference they had made. “I used to just smack the kids when they were naughty, but now I dont.” This said with considerable pride in the changes she had made. To some she would only be seen as an abusive parent, but by giving tools to improve rather than punishing her behaviour, and attitude to being a parent were changed.
I am not saying abusive parents should not be punished. However there are not always clear-cut lines here, and it seems to me to call for more retributive rather than restorative justice is yet again people allowing the mob instinct for punishment to take over. Trying to help people be better parents may not make headlines but surely it is preferable to increasing the prison population?
I do not have the answers, and sincerely hope the proposed bill does protect children, but in the current society giving police more powers of arrest, ignoring different cultures and reinforcing a narrow idea of good parenting all raise huge issues. There are no fairy godmothers with magic wands when it comes to parenting. Lets hope the Cinderella law isnt seen as one.
It suggested the “relative economic wellbeing” of the family and the image they presented was a “contributory factor in the children’s centre’s underestimation of the risk factors and vulnerability of the family and made it less likely that staff would be suspicious of the information given”
White “respectable” mums being assumed to be good parents is of course indicative of who is considered not to be a good parent, and children die.
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