Nanny state or sensible state?

The gimmicky nature of the Prime Minister for a Day competition eclipsed all other aspects of the event. People giggled as Lawrence Gonzi tried to do an Obama and get to hang out with lesser mortals.

Parenting classes are likely to miss the cases in which they are most needed
- Claire Bonello

Someone should tell his marketing people that these American-style stunts don’t go down well, here in Malta. The ridicule which greeted the whole she bang unfortunately rubbed off somewhat on the proposal made by the winner. Maria Hammett, who runs a childcare centre, suggested compulsory parenting courses.

This suggestion was met with outraged howls about the nanny state controlling every aspect of our lives. Hasn’t every aspect of our lives become subject to government interference and regulation? Are we now going to be told what exactly to include in little Johnny’s lunch box? And is the government going to lay down the law as to when Karen goes to bed?

Haven’t we been popping out children for a couple of millennia without some Super Nanny hectoring us about the rights and wrongs of parenting?

And what exactly would be the consequences of failing to turn up for one of these parenting classes? Would the same person who took down the attendance records realise that we had been playing truant and come over to tie our tubes, forcibly removing any children we had already given birth to? That was the gist of some of the comments made online.

The concept of parenting courses isn’t a totally new one. Over in the UK, David Cameron has introduced the ‘Can Parent’ scheme where vouchers for £100-worth of parenting classes are on offer from high street chemist Boots and health professionals to parents of children aged up to five in three trial areas.

Responding to charges that this was enabling the nanny state to meddle in other people’s business, Cameron said, “This is not the nanny state – it’s the sensible state. It’s ludicrous that we should expect people to train for hours to drive a car or use a computer, but when it comes to looking after a baby we tell people to just get on with it.”

He has a point there. Babies do not come with a manual and contrary to widely-held views not all newbie parents know exactly what to do when faced with a squalling child, a toddler who won’t eat anything bar chocolate cookies or a seemingly uncontrollable child.

The problem is compounded by the fact that modern society is not exactly conducive to child-rearing. Despite the plethora of books about the topic, ranging from those about baby massage, to signing, to those by strict baby gurus, they’re a poor substitute for the practical hands-on advice which used to be passed on down from generation to generation by mothers, grandmothers and a bevy of aunts making up the extended family.

Many of those are now swelling the ranks of the gainfully-employed and are no longer at hand to dispense advice or simply to help out. This means that young parents are more or less on their own. The availability of parenting courses might be useful to fill in this lacuna and provide some pointers for parents floundering in a sea of unanswered questions. So it’s not a totally off-the-wall idea.

Of course, there are going to be major stumbling blocks in getting certain parents to the classes. Short of docking welfare and allowance payments,there’s little one can do to drag them over.

And here’s the rub and the reason why parenting classes won’t work out. If such courses are voluntary, they will probably be attended by those who need them least, parents who realise that they don’t have all the answers, and who are willing to ask for help. Those who are wilfully ignorant or who simply couldn’t be bothered will stay away.

The classes will miss the cases in which they are most needed. Unless we work out how to tackle that particular problem, we’ll have to make do with those baby-whisperer books.

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