Whose kids are they anyway? Reclaiming parental authority

Battle of Ideas festival 2023, Saturday 28 October, Church House, London


‘Mother knows best’ used to be indisputable. But the idea that parents should have the last word on how their children are raised has become unfashionable.

Perhaps the most obvious way in which parental authority has been challenged is in the relationship breakdown between schools and families. The introduction of transgender ideology into sex-education classes and the adoption of pronouns at school has been protested strongly by parents who oppose such views. Some teachers in the US have supported ‘transition closets’, in which students could change their outfits from home to become their ‘true’ selves. For some, this is a welcome intervention to help children whose families don’t support their identity. For others, such a move risks undermining trust between parents and kids, sending them the message that teachers care more than their parents.

But ‘parenting’ – both a verb and a phenomenon – is something which, for a long time, has involved intervention from a whole range of external experts, rather than just mum and dad. In the early 2000s, professor Frank Furedi coined the term paranoid parenting – which claimed that a safety-obsessed culture had hampered parents’ ability to feel confident to bring up kids. Twenty years later, a more intense scrutiny of how people ‘parent’ has resulted in a proliferation of parenting styles – from helicopter to free-range, attachment to ‘gentle’ parenting.

Earlier this year, the Duchess of Cambridge launched the Centre For Early Childhood to empower what she called the ‘early years workforce’. ‘What we experience in the early years, from conception to the age of five, shapes the developing brain’, the centre claims, ‘which is why positive physical, emotional and cognitive development during this period is so crucial’. Some have argued that this is simply a royal version of New Labour’s Sure Start programme, which aimed to combat poverty by ‘giving children the best possible start in life’. While many welcomed access to childcare, others are sceptical of a more interventionist approach to family life. Rather than freeing up parents to do what they want, many feel pressured by such programmes to tick the boxes of what it means to ‘parent’ well. For some parents, the result can often look like late-night googling, feeling judged at check-ups and a more fraught relationship with their children.

Who knows best how to raise kids? Is parenting a skill – only learned by reading books and listening to experts? Is more information and expertise – not just about nappies and winding, but from psychologists and scientific researchers – a welcome support to help parents ‘parent’ better? Or has the loss of intergenerational involvement – from grandparents to neighbours – been replaced with a more technocratic approach to the motto ‘it takes a village to raise a child’? Should schools and government have the final say when it comes to instilling values in the next generation – on everything from sexuality to social norms? And is there a perfect formula for raising the next generation – if so, who owns our children?

Tom Bewick
visiting professor of skills and workforce policy, Staffordshire University; fellow, Royal Society of Arts

Jo-Anne Nadler
political commentator and writer; campaigner, Don’t Divide Us

Allison Pearson
columnist and chief interviewer, Daily Telegraph; co-presenter, Planet Normal podcast

Dr Stuart Waiton
senior lecturer, sociology and criminology, Abertay University; author, Scared of the Kids: curfews, crime and the regulation of young people; chair, Scottish Union for Education,

Jane Sandeman
chief operating officer, The Passage; convenor, AoI Parents Forum; contributor, Standing up to Supernanny