Mothers on the naughty step: the growth of the parenting advice industry

Seventy years ago, paediatrician Donald Winnicott started to give humane, non-judgmental advice to mothers. But today's gurus seem to do little more than admonish parents

Seventy years ago, a middle-aged man walked into a BBC radio studio in London to record the first of a series of talks that would radically change the way mothers thought about parenting. The 50 or so broadcasts made by paediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott between 1943 and 1962 on a wide range of subjects – from feeding and weaning to jealousy and stealing – popularised his psychoanalytic thinking on the relationship between babies and their mothers to such an extent that some of his catchphrases, such as the good enough mother and the transitional object, have entered everyday speech.

Winnicott abhorred the idea of giving advice. He believed that when mothers tried to do things by the book – or by the wireless: "They lose touch with their own ability to act without knowing exactly what is right and what is wrong." Yet today there are far more parenting advice books (each with their own regime to promote) than 30 years ago, and the radio and TV schedules are full of programmes such as Supernanny, which train a critical eye on what are generally called parents but most of us understand to be mothers. It sometimes seems it is mothers, rather than children, who are being dispatched to the naughty step.

How did we get from the benign Dr Winnicott to the admonishing Jo Frost? And do we really need this bloated parenting advice industry in the age of Mumsnet?

Winnicott feared that focusing on pathological families rather than "the ordinary devoted mother and her baby" (the title of his most famous series) could excite anxiety in listeners without access to therapy. "I cannot tell you exactly what to do," he said, "but I can talk about what it all means." And so he did, extolling the role of the good enough mother – one who can be loved, hated and depended on – in enabling the baby to develop into a healthy, independent, adult. While many of today's parenting gurus focus on a child's deviant behaviour and the contribution of supposed misparenting, Winnicott tried to help mothers understand the significance of their child's behaviour, whether it was "cloth-sucking" or a display of jealousy, and the ways that they instinctively contained their child's anxieties.

His talks were published as a book, The Child, the Family and the Outside World, which is still enthused over decades later. One reason for the success of his talks was the (subsequently rather neglected) role of his female producers, Janet Quigley and Isa Benzie, who steered the talks from idea to microphone, and not only made suggestions that Winnicott incorporated in his scripts, but monitored them for sentiments that could generate guilt in the listener-mother. Another reason Winnicott's talks have so endured was his ability to communicate both simply and vividly to a non-professional audience, albeit in a voice so high-pitched that many listeners thought he was a woman (he broadcast anonymously, as did all doctors at the time).

Donald Winnicott
Some of the ideas of Donald Winnicott, above, are still in common use – the good enough mother and the transitional object. Photograph: PR

Winnicott's popularity, and that of Susan Isaacs, a psychotherapist who broadcast before him and was a columnist for the magazine Nursery World, was part of a reaction against the earlier stern parenting advice of Frederic Truby King, the Gina Ford of his day, who enjoined mothers to breastfeed by the clock – four-hourly feeds, with baby left untouched in the fresh air in between. Although some say more mothers knew about the Truby King system than practised it, others felt guilty because of their inability to adhere to it. Or, in the words of an editorial in Childhood, a magazine launched in 1947 for "modern parents": "Mothers would sit in misery listening to their hungry infants screaming for anything from 10 minutes to a couple of hours, until the wretched clock reached the appointed time."

Disciplinarian advice has alternated with liberal advice ever since: for every Gina Ford advocating controlled crying, there has been a liberal antidote – a Dr Spock or Penelope Leach – although sometimes it is hard to distinguish the liberal from the prescriptive: British psychologist John Bowlby, for instance, was liberal about children's behaviour, but less so when it came to that of mothers.

The high-priestess of behaviourist parenting is Channel 4's Supernanny, a makeover programme that has applied the formula of reality TV to parenting and which, according to a 2008 survey, has been watched by 72% of parents. With its roster of rules (some of which, such as the "One Strike and You're Out," sound as if they belong in a remand facility rather than a home), it suggests a quick-fix to parenting problems, irrespective of the particularities of the child or parent.

Tracey Jensen, lecturer in media and cultural studies at Newcastle University, says Supernanny reverses Winnicott, offering up the spectacle of the "bad enough mother", usually working-class, who is shamed before she is transformed. Jensen watched the programme with a group of mothers, relieved that it was not their parenting practices being scrutinised, but those of someone else onto whom all their own worries and fears could be displaced. But they also shouted back at the programme, discomfited by the judgment and humiliation meted out to the mothers featured. Such series foster the very anxiety they claim to assuage, and substitute "training" for thinking and feeling.

While each successive era's ideas about motherhood have had a political and economic dimension, the proliferation of parenting manuals and programmes such as Supernanny signals something else: a moral panic over parenting that feeds into the narrative of "broken Britain", in which "faulty" parenting is the cause of everything from obesity to educational failure and even divorce. Jensen says: "It's a very common narrative that we're going through a parenting crisis. There's a lot of nostalgia in there – that our parents knew how to parent us, and that our grandparents knew how to parent them," even though all the evidence suggests that parents today spend more time with their children and are more attentive to them than previous generations. Leaving children unsupervised – standard practice in the 1960s – is now seen as evidence of neglect.

Of course the parenting advice industry has not just ideas, but products to sell – you can actually buy a naughty step, aka a Time Out Pad, solving parenting dilemmas by shopping. But even if you strive to resist their messages, contends Jensen, programmes such as Supernanny create a system of self-surveillance in which mothers scrutinise their every decision, thereby generating yet more anxiety.

So what about Mumsnet: hasn't it rendered the parenting expert obsolete? Many who regularly post on the messageboard applaud the generous support they have received from other mothers whom they have never met in person: in this respect it resembles not so much a parenting manual as a virtual version of a mother's coffee-morning or a natter over the fence of old. And yet there have also been accusations, as with any website, of bitchiness and bullying. At its best a 24-hour source of information from a million big sisters, at its worst it offers a million people who are sure they have the answer … This democratisation of knowledge has allowed mothers to challenge professional expertise – a welcome power shift to Jensen, but one with the potential to produce an exponential amount of anxiety.

The age of unselfconscious mothering seems over, at least for now. The mantra intoned by many of today's parenting gurus is "trust your instincts" – but only after you have bought their book or DVD giving you permission to do so. But then Winnicott, too, was in a somewhat contradictory position, as a paediatrician and psychoanalyst who endorsed mothers as specialists in child-rearing.

Naomi Stadlen, psychotherapist and author of What Mothers Do – Especially When it Looks Like Nothing, argues that mothers spend all day listening to their children, but often aren't listened to themselves. Mothers, Stadlen suggests, only turn dogmatic or bossy when they feel cornered or unsure of themselves. Now that seems like an anxiety-reducing explanation with which Winnicott would have entirely agreed.

• Anne Karpf presents Archive on 4: From Donald Winnicott to the Naughty Step on BBC Radio 4 at 8pm on 4 May


Anne Karpf

The GuardianTramp

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