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Government promotion of positive parenting is potentially damaging, says new LSE research

Government advice to parents to 'be nice' to their children by using positive reinforcement instead of punishment is potentially damaging and parents should, instead, be left to trust their own instincts, according to new research from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

In a paper published in the journal Ethics and Education, Helen Reece, an expert in family law, argues that ‘positive parenting’ is arduous, if not impossible, and therefore damaging because it sets parents up to fail and also destroys the spontaneity of the parent-child relationship.

Ms Reece analyses the ‘positive parenting’ methods promoted in the Department of Health guidebook, Birth to Five, which is issued free to all new parents, and in the government-funded website Parentchannel.tv. These instruct parents to ‘be nice’ by avoiding punishment, with an emphasis instead on positive reinforcement and leading by example.pregnant

She says in the paper: “It represents the accumulation of official, mainstream advice about how to discipline children: published by a government department, production and distribution costs are funded publicly. Given the contemporary proliferation of widely divergent childcare advice - an era in which we can choose to be a ‘tiger mother’, an ‘attachment parent’ or the mother of a ‘contented little baby’, as advised by Gina Ford, I am interested in exploring advice that comes with a clear and overt official stamp.”

Ms Reece commented: "The Government should not be putting parents under pressure by issuing parenting advice ­- parents should be left to trust their own instincts and intuition.

"Most of family law is about monitoring and judging parenting. The most extreme example is of course when children are taken away from their parents into care, but judging parenting is also important when deciding a residence dispute after divorce, when deciding who is allowed to adopt or foster and so on. The emphasis on always being 'nice' is too onerous and means that parents are being set up to fail.

"My main concern is that the impossibility of 'positive parenting' is particularly disturbing for a parent who is under scrutiny. For example, if their child has some behavioural difficulties, positive parenting means that the authorities can always find ways in which the parent's own behaviour is lacking and therefore is the cause. And if any of us were observed for any length of time, we would be bound to 'transgress'."

Dr Ellie Lee, Director of the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies at the University of Kent, commented: “The view has become prevalent that bringing up children is far too difficult and too important to be left to mere parents. The main beneficiaries of this have been so-called ‘parenting experts’. There is no evidence, however, to suggest Britain’s parents have gained anything from being told that professionals have the answers. Helen Reece’s article makes some very important points about the dangers of making policies about how to raise children and I hope some politicians will listen to what she is telling them.”

Notes to Editors

Helen Reece is a qualified Barrister and Reader in Law at LSE. The School’s Law Department plays a major role in policy debates and policy-making, and in the education of lawyers and law teachers from around the world.

Journalists who would like a copy of the article, please email Joanna Bale, LSE press office, j.m.bale@lse.ac.uk

To interview Helen Reece, please email h.reece@lse.ac.uk

June 21 2013