Cruel parenting is not a class issue
by Julia Margo
I expect that my ongoing fascination with Karen Matthews long after the tabloids have dropped her is predictably middle class. Her crime may be heinous, but she has captured our imagination in her role as working class anti-hero: a reminder of how some people (the 'other half') live in today's Britain.
The weekend coverage of sink estates – the 'bubble communities' in which the working class associates of Matthews and other greasy-haired and withered welfare-dependent mothers supposedly live and breed, governed by social norms unrecognisable to you or me – reveals our need to intellectualise from above the divides that shape our society. Not to make sense of them but to shiver in smug confidence that this is not our world.
In middle class suburbs children skip to school with nutritious lunch boxes and lacrosse sticks. In Matthews-land they walk barefoot with mud for shoes and lice in their hair. Or so our narrative goes.
Actually, while poverty is linked to poorer child well being, lots of poor parents are brilliant and norms of behaviour in many small working class communities are often better enforced than in some looser middle class hubs. But somewhere in the reporting of this horrible story cruelty and bad parenting became a class issue and being poor or out of work became synonymous with child abuse and neglect.
Take the Conservative party's new plans to intervene in low income homes where parents do not work. In these homes, parenting style and effectiveness will be examined by trained staff as well as parental attitudes to work. The assumption is that parents who do not work or work sporadically are worse parents. An army of trained welfare to work officers will therefore help parents into work and thus magically solve their parenting deficits.
An earlier idea from the Conservatives was to use the tax and benefit system to promote marriage, the assumption being that married parents are better parents. Matthews, who is neither married nor employed, would presumably have been targeted by both interventions.
Neither would have worked.
The statistics do suggest that children are more at risk if they come from single parent or unemployed families. A wealth of econometric analysis shows there is a small association between being very poor and being a bad parent and being a single parent and neglecting your children. Being poor and having never married are both flags for being working class. But this is merely freakonomics.
Class matters and we should not ignore the need to tackle structural disadvantage in society if we are to genuinely protect children: it is quite simply more difficult to parent alone and without money. But being poor does not make parents cruel.
We may be able to derive links between serial unemployment, single parentood and cruelty simply because an individual with an extreme personality disorder or behavioural problem will find it equally difficult to hold down a job as to control their temper with a child (and undoubtedly will find it harder to keep a partner). But clearly addressing either the unemployment or marriage status of this individual will not improve their parenting.
Ideas such as those put forward by the Conservatives could help to bring resource and support to struggling parents. But we cannot pretend this is the way to prevent another Karen Matthews saga. In the long-term we need to develop interventions that address the roots of cruel parenting which lie in psychological and psychosocial problems, which are incidentally not related to social class background (although depression and behaving antisocially can be) something we are exceptionally poor at doing in the UK.
Indications of personality disorder and other genuine psychological problems are often apparent in children from age 10 onwards. The way to protect the next generation of children from cruel parenting is therefore to invest in interventions that would address developmental problems in the current generation of children and teenagers.