By Dr. Mark Wanstall
Yes, The World’s Strictest Parents — from the production company Twentytwenty, broadcast since 2007 on BBC3 — is another ‘reality TV’ programme. Yes it’s formulaic, possibly even exploitative of all involved; and the morality tale outcomes are nearly always simplistic and predictable. But there is a profound truth that speaks to us — if we can focus on the bigger picture and just treat the inevitable pantomime set-piece clashes between spoilt UK brats and ‘strict’ and sometimes overzealous foreign parents as merely televisual entertainment. The truth contained within The World’s Strictest Parents is that where parents are confident in their own moral compass and values, and where these parents are supported by a network of like-minded adults in a society that understands and takes seriously the role of adults in the socialization of the next generation, the relationships between parents and their children can be a lot more positive; and the children themselves can develop as more balanced and optimistic than would otherwise be the case.
Although the premise of the programme is a focus on the individual psychological and behavioural ‘issues’ of young people living in the UK, to see how they respond when exposed to an alternative (‘stricter’) parenting style, the more interesting (and important) dimension of the show is how it shines a light on the crisis of adulthood within UK society today. For a start, we have to question how these teenagers have become so unruly and ill disciplined in the first place. The fact that desperate and apparently clueless and defeated UK parents are not embarrassed to parade their own parental failure on TV (not only in this programme but on others which highlight the problem in even greater relief — such as Supernanny) is itself symptomatic of the crisis of adulthood or what sociologist Frank Furedi calls the “emptying out of adult identity”.
Although it is easy to blame individual parents, the problems of adult authority are of far wider societal concern — certainly in the Anglo-American world, and increasingly in parts of continental Europe too. Elsewhere, a sense of adult responsibility for socializing the next generation into the mores and values of society is still very much evident. In recent years, I have witnessed the profound sense of respect given by young people to their elders in China, the Philippines, Ethiopia and Namibia. In these countries, when excited and shouting children surround tourists such as myself (as they inevitably do), nearby adults, mostly unrelated to these children, are rarely diffident about intervening to admonish children if they feel they are being a nuisance and to disperse them if they decide that they are. This is also remains the case in some southern European countries. I remember only a couple of years ago being on a guided tour to the volcanic island of Nisyros in the Dodecanese when, while the guide was discussing how the Nazis had murdered local resistance fighters in the town square we were standing in, some children were making quite a lot of noise. The guide merely stopped talking and shouted to the children to shut up, which they did immediately. Their parents who had been distracted up to this point immediately apologised to the guide and chastised their children. I doubt that in the UK today it could be guaranteed that parents would so readily submit to such criticism of their children’s behaviour.
In the UK today, anyone who travels on public transport or visits public places can not ignore the fact that acts of ‘bad behaviour’ — such as blatant incivility, low-level vandalism and worse — are committed by young people on a routine basis, seemingly in the knowledge that adult rebuke is unlikely. These young people are of course pushing the boundaries like young people have always done, but the difference today is that adults in the Anglo-American world seem completely at a loss as to how to respond. From young peoples’ verbal abuse to low level vandalism, you will find the majority of adults responding with indifference or more often studied avoidance and an abrogation of what would once have been considered their collective responsibility as adults to intervene and ‘correct’ children’s bad behaviour.
Such ‘adult solidarity’ was once, in Anglo-American societies, an unspoken assumption and recognition of the collective nature of socialization of the new generation. Today, however, such a collective understanding is remarkable for its absence. This is not merely a response to panics about adults being accused of being paedophiles or fearing violence from youth (although these are aggravating features). The issue is really one about subjectivity. It is about a society in which adults no longer feel autonomous, independent and capable, and thus confident enough to advise and if necessary discipline children — not only their own, but also others they encounter in broader society.
This crisis of adult authority is reflected by the emphasis, certainly within academia in recent years, to talk of children themselves as subjects or as ‘capable agents’. This advocacy of ‘children’s rights’, it is argued, is a humanistic response to the marginalization of children as a political ‘Other’. In fact, it is only possible to think about children in these terms because of the ‘death of the Subject’ (as brilliantly explained in James Heartfield’s excellent book of 2006), a phenomena which helps to explain the insecurity of adults and their increased tendency to defer to children —or more likely state and charitable institutions who claims to speak and on behalf of children.
The topic of parenthood, child rearing and discipline is now one that fascinates the television producer. The World’s Strictest Parents, Supernanny and Wifeswap all titillate the audience by presenting clashes of what the childhood studies literature calls ‘parenting styles’; while Brat Camp focuses more exclusively on the behavioural issues of individual children. Where The World’s Strictest Parents differs profoundly from the other reality shows about children’s behaviour, however, is that it is the only one to consider (albeit mostly rather superficially) the broader cultural dimensions of raising a child.
Hillary Clinton’s book, It Takes a Village to Raise a Child (1996), created much discussion around the concept of broader community involvement in child rearing (the original concept is from the Nigerian Igbo culture proverb). Space does not permit me to engage in a critique of Clinton’s ideas and their shortcomings here. More important was the response to the book. So, for example, during his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, nominee Bob Dole said: “… with all due respect, I am here to tell you, it does not take a village to raise a child. It takes a family to raise a child”. However, more radical critics of Clinton’s popularisation of this idea suggest, more convincingly, that it actually takes society to raise a child. What we see in World’s Strictest Parents — at its best — are parents who are self-assured in their authority because of the implicit support of their society and other adults within it. Here, we often encounter the implicit concept of the ‘collective adult’ prepared to act in loco parentis in a variety of situations in order to reinforce the primary socializing role of the parent. It is in examining the effectiveness of this broader idea of socialization of children that makes the World’s Strictest Parents (where it touches on this concept) more instructive than Brat Camp or Supernanny or other programmes that focus exclusively on the personal issues of disruptive and errant children and the individualistic behaviourist approaches to parenting which help ‘resolve’ these issues.
What is interesting in World’s Strictest Parents is how often school authorities — teachers and heads — are seen to act in concert with parents in reinforcing cultural values. This can be compared unfavourably with the situation in the UK where there are countless examples of widespread hostility from parents to any teacher who attempts to enforce any level of discipline against their children.
On the other hand, contributors to many of the blogs discussing this programme (e.g. ‘Common sense media’; ‘The mom crowd’; ‘TV scoop’) seem to focus unduly on the styles of parenting and particularly the concept of ‘strictness’ in terms of technical aspects of discipline; as well as on tips and advice about child rearing (indeed, a number actually ask how to get in touch with the show’s producers in order to introduce their own errant children to a stricter parenting regime!). Again, that adults are prepared to admit failure this publicly is instructive about the emptying out of adult identity – but the real issue here is that this focus on ‘discipline advice’ misses the point (as do false dichotomies based on ideas such as ‘traditional’ (‘strict’) and ‘modern’ (‘progressive’) parenting).
What the World’s Strictest Parents programmes from Ghana, India, Jamaica, Israel, Lebanon, and Botswana (to name a few) all identify are parents with a clear sense of values, purpose and authority, implicitly backed up by wider society and other adults acting as the ‘collective adult’. Of course one doesn’t have to agree with religious fundamentalism (espoused by some of the show’s host parents) and other reactionary or culturally specific ideas (like teaching children the value of back breaking agricultural work, which only makes sense in economically underdeveloped contexts — although with the rise of green thinking maybe this idea will become popular even in the Anglo-American world?). Often the parents’ views are narrow-minded and illiberal. But these societal beliefs are shared and upheld and reinforced by all adults (as part of an unspoken agreement), so they do not produce the levels of confusion, alienation and ‘acting out’ among young people that they do in a society like Britain — where there is no general agreement about the boundaries of adulthood and childhood, and confused adults continue to send out mixed messages and fail to hold the line on many issues. Because of the self-confident sense of adulthood in many other cultures, children there gain a sense of commitment to something bigger (the family, the community) than the narcissistic existence of the individualised teenager common in Britain today.
The point is that in all of the World’s Strictest Parents contexts the host parents’ own children accept and understand the value and authority of their parents’ knowledge and experience and their role in socializing the next generation. Throughout the series there is evidence that implicitly these children also understand that they will be free to develop and express and act on their own ideas once they too are adults (indeed developing such ability to exercise autonomy is integral to the socialization process). However, the UK teens portrayed seem completely astounded that any adult – or indeed anyone at all – should exercise authority over any aspect of their lives. We recognize the broader resonance in this response by teens to adult authority as almost universal across the UK — even if we accept that this series presents ‘extreme’ cases which in other respects are atypical of most UK teens.
A good case study of this phenomenon is the programme set in Botswana. Here we have Hannah and Leigh from the UK staying with the Selelo
UK teen Hannah refusing to participate in school in Botswana
family in the village of Mopane. Before they get to Botswana, the show lays the foundations by introducing us to the two teens. Interestingly, both are only too well aware of the problem of a lack of boundaries in their respective homes. The opening sequence involving Hannah has her ‘kicking off’ in front of her helpless father. In apparent response to a question we don’t actually hear, presumably from the show’s producer, Hannah smirks into the camera and says “Do I listen to him [the father]? Fuck no, I mean why would I? There’s no punishment afterwards so what’s the point?” We then cut to Leigh who tells us that there are no boundaries in his parents’ house: “I’m aware that I should listen to my parents but I don’t”. On the basis of these two sequences, surely no one can argue with the Botswanan mother these teens are about to visit when she observes that “the British people’s moral fabric is disintegrating”.
Although the programme does focus disproportionately and sensationally on the issue of discipline (in particular corporal punishment), for me this was not the key issue. As the Botswanan father points out: “we are not just strict for nothing”. This point is elaborated on by the mother, who adds “lazy people do not have a future because life is a struggle”. The ethos of success in school is also very important to the Selelo family, thus when Hannah shows minimal effort at the Botswanan school she attends for the week, a clash of cultures is revealed between the approaches of the respective adults in the UK and Botswana. Hannah explains that she attained no GCSEs because “I’d tell dad I didn’t want to go to school and he would say ‘that’s OK’”. This attitude contrasts strongly with that of the Botswanan mother, in concert with the school’s vice principal, who makes it clear what is expected of students — echoing similar scenes from other shows, notably the one set in Lebanon. These acts of adult solidarity contrast sharply with their absence in the UK context as represented in World’s Strictest Parents, which despite being ‘extreme’ cases are nonetheless representative of a wider cultural malaise.
The sense of collective adult authority is also in evidence in the convocation of a ‘family conference’ within the Selelo household to discuss and attempt to resolve the issues raised by Hannah’s having been caught drinking and Leigh’s refusing to remove his nipple ring (having initially lied about having one). When this ‘family conference’ fails to resolve these issues within the family, they are put before Mopane’s tribal ‘children’s court’ — a forum where family disputes are arbitrated by village elders. The teens are advised that possible punishments for disobeying parents, drug taking and drinking, etc., may include lashing or caning by village elders. This produces predictable outrage, which in part resembles Armstrong and Miller’s hilarious spoof portrayal of World War Two RAF pilots — parodying the self-important attitude of British youth brought up on a diet of ‘children’s rights’ (“That’s so like against my human rights and shit…”).
So, Leigh explodes, saying that the idea of this form of punishment is “disrespectful to the child”. A bemused village elder is completely unfazed and unimpressed, stating bluntly that “there’s no such thing as rights when it comes to a child”. The UK teens react with predictable incredulity to this idea: “You did not just say that!” says Hannah; “That’s offensive” says Leigh. “I swore and threw things at my parents…”, says Hannah, as if this represents some sort of philosophical argument against the efficacy of establishing boundaries. The Botswanan mother’s put down is a classic: “They gave you too many rights and where are you now?”
UK teen Leigh, finally reconciled to the discipline of the Selelo family in Botswana.
On one level, this debate crystallizes the debate about the very notion of universal children’s rights as set out in the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) 1989, but space doesn’t permit further comment on this. The point I wish to make is that whatever you think about the parents’ attitudes to ‘disobedience’, nipple-rings, swearing, drugs, drink, etc., in this society there are structures and more importantly informal mechanisms that support the idea of adult solidarity. As a consequence of holding the line on the idea of adult authority, the UK teens’ objections soon withered. They were later forced to admit this relationship between adults and children worked, especially for the Botswanan children — as evidenced by the Selelo children, whose maturity and intelligence were obvious for all to see. As UK teen, Leigh, himself concluded: “In Britain you have to be a rebel to be cool; here you have to be smart to be cool”.
Of course many of the objections to World’s Strictest Parents in TV reviews and parent blogs are valid: it is sensationalized; parents are often (though not always) ‘extreme’ cases, chosen merely to exacerbate the conflicts with teens; and the idea that the personal behavioural issues of the UK teens involved can be resolved by alternative parenting alone (and within the space of 10 days) does lack credibility. More importantly, however, World’s Strictest Parents only tangentially touches on the really important issues (society’s role in socialization and the crucial idea of adult solidarity) and how cultural differences on these issues between the insecure Anglo-American world and ‘the rest of the world’ have important consequences. And I do wish TV could give more serious and much needed attention to these issues.
For many reasons (too many to go into in this article), UK adults have become estranged from children — seeing them as both more vulnerable and in need than they really are, and at the same time more anti-social, threatening and violent than they are. These are really projections of adult insecurity and confusion about their own role.I would argue that adult solidarity and our understanding of our adult role in socializing the next generation is an essential prerequisite to a healthy society, and its absence is one of the reasons for the crisis of adult authority in Britain. This is bad because without this sense of purpose there is no possibility of even starting to build a political movement for the progressive transformation of society.
 Paranoid Parenting (2001)
 The Death of the Subject Explained (2006)
 http://www.themomcrowd.com/tv-recap-review-worlds-strictest-parents (accessed December 2009)
 http://www.tvscoop.tv/2008/09/tv_review_the_w_2.html (accessed December 2009)