Sunday, 10 January 2010

The Contented Little Citizen Book? Clegg's approach to parenting reveals his attitude to politics

Being a parent, like being a liberal, means being alive to the needs of the individual. Using systems sparingly, to free, rather than to oppress.

I'm a liberal, and a mother of four, so I was interested to read Nick Clegg's interview in today's Sunday Times, in which he refers to The Contented Little Baby Book:

"The Liberal Democrat leader, a father of three, described Gina Ford’s approach to bringing up babies, which involves encouraging them to stick to strict routines, as “absolute nonsense”.

Speaking about trying to follow the guidelines in Ford’s bestselling book, which has brought her a worldwide following, Clegg said: “It was like following a sort of Ikea assembly instruction manual. It made us feel strangely passive as parents.” "

"...Clegg made his comments to The Sunday Times after saying he had been up four times the night before the interview with his 10-month-old son, Miguel."

Talk to any parent with young children and the conversation will soon come around to sleep. It's a great leveller. They'll find the subject as irresistible as a warm duvet at 2am.

Countless nights I've stood, cotside, deranged with sleep deprivation - wishing for a magic spell to make the baby wake only at sociable hours.

I was so resigned to broken nights and frequent feeds (what with a baby's stomach only being the size of its pudgy closed fist) that I was confounded by my third child - she never once woke for a night feed, nor any other reason. In the early weeks I'd wake up regularly anyway, and tiptoe to her side to check she was breathing! After that, I'd just feast on sleep, knowing that it wasn't anything clever I'd done, but grateful all the same.

When I was a new mother, my son and I were thrown out of a postnatal class at the local health centre. It was called "How to stop your baby crying." I was keen to hear the advice, since my son cried day and night, barely slept and I was desperate to help and comfort him. It turned out that he had a painful medical condition, but the only advice I received from the people running the class was to leave. They didn't have a clue what to do, and besides, he was distracting all the silent, cherubic babies and their equally cherubic parents.

I trusted my own instincts and a short time later I persuaded doctors that something was wrong and he got the treatment he needed. He always did cry a lot as a baby, but I subscribed to the "This too, shall pass" school of thought, and we got through that distressing period as best we could.

(Now he's hit the phenomenal growth spurts of adolescence, he seems to be making up for lost sleep and gorges himself on the stuff. This too, shall pass...)

As a young mother, in those pre-broadband days, I became fascinated by all the advice dished out to new parents. I marvelled at the array of childcare books giving conflicting advice.

I read 'em all, pretty much: from James Dobson's disturbing, corporal punishment-laden Dare to Discipline to the joy-filled and retrospectively poignant The Fun Don't Stop by Paula Yates. I boggled at Gina Ford's books (including Potty Training in One Week, in which one is taken hostage by toddler and potty in one room for seven days - not a realistic proposition for anyone with older children. Or a life.)

The best thing I read in any of them was Dr Christopher Green's introduction to Toddler Taming - along the lines of "Once, I had many theories and no children. Now I have four children and no theories."

It's good to read and consult widely as a new parent, but trust your own instincts and be wary of letting anything over-ride them.

Babies and children, just like the bigger versions of people, are all different. Parents and politicians alike need flexibility, attunement to people's needs, adaptability, sensitivity, frequent dialogue. Systems and routines should be your servant, not your master. Nanny books (like the Nanny State) over-simplify and don't help individuals to choose what's best for their own lives.

So I wasn't surprised at Nick Clegg's response to Gina Ford's Contented Little Baby Book. Although Ford replied that "he has just insulted the parenting choice of more than two million British voters" - I'm certain that many of her readers have disagreed with her methods. Gina Ford herself has reacted angrily - and tellingly - to Clegg's independent thinking and seems to want parents to read her books unquestioningly.

The greatest delight and satisfaction of being a parent is watching a child grow, become as independent as possible and reach their full potential.

Isn't this what adults need too?


Vulpine said...

I guess Gina was counting me among her 2 million disciples, because I did indeed spend money on her book about sleep routines. But she's mistaken: I plucked a very few good ideas from the swamp of judgmental, prescriptive, obsessive, homogenous, controlling _nonsense_, and ignored the rest. There's a _timetable_ for when to nurse a newborn, for heaven's sake! What a fruitloop.

Anyway. I'm utterly with Nick on this one, and am proud of him for what he said. One size does not fit all, whether small or big people.

James Wilkinson said...

Does anyone get parenting tips from their parents or grandparents any more?

A lot of people have moved away from their parents/extended families for work reasons and so, on becoming parents themselves, feel they are unprepared.

A 'guide book' on parenting seems like such a useful thing, and with such an attractive title such as Ms Fords', an easy option.

The danger with a formulaic approach to individuals is trying to make everyone fit the same model. Anyone who doesn't fit gets branded as difficult, a misfit, unmanageable or, dare I say, ADHD.

Nick may find himself in legal hot water - just Google for 'Gina Ford suing'.

Jennie said...

I always feel like a fraud in these discussions, because Holly slept through from being 2 weeks old, and I have very rarely had any trouble with her. I didn't read any parenting books. I talked to my mum a bit, but not that much. Mostly I just spent lots and lots of time with her - and encouraged her dad to do the same - and listened to what she wanted.

This is why I don't want any more children. I'll never have THAT luck again...

Rankersbo said...

I was recommended Gina Ford by a colleague at work. He's in a minority of one.

She's not best approved of by the community nurses round here.

Pointers and theories are great, they can inform your choices. But what has amazed me has been the vehemence of some of the adherents of the theories.

We read the books, listen to our friends, our parents. Then we do what seems right.

Joe Otten said...

I think all this parenting theory, Ford et al, forgets that children are individuals, different to each other, and that differences in behaviour, waking, walking, etc, are more likely to be due to differences in innate personality, rather than failures of parenting method.

But the parental guilt industry gorges on the opposite view.