The idea is that British teenagers whose parents find them unruly are sent abroad to live with other families — families where children are brought up strictly. After only a week, the teenagers are transformed people. They return home and live happily ever after.
Here’s this week’s episode, Ghana:
The series is difficult to make sense of, and I have only seen two of the episodes. To me, the themes presented by the programme makers seem to be inaccurate.
Strict and religious
The foreign families are presented as strict and religious, but I don’t see it. They certainly take their roles as parents very seriously (although some of that might be because there are cameras around, and a TV contract).
They come across to me as people for whom family life is very important. They live in communities where there is strong support for the importance of family life, within a single culture. Within this environment, they don’t seem particularly strict.
For example, in this week’s episode Lizzie’s clothing is an issue because the adults feel is it too revealing and sexually suggestive. But this is not presented to Lizzie as a strict rule. It’s explained as a cultural and moral issue. I have come across much stricter parents than that here in the UK.
They also come across to me as people who have a religious faith, and who participate in a religious community without being dominated by religion.
For example, in this week’s episode the children spend an hour each morning doing housework — not an hour praying. I have come across much more religious parents than that here in the UK.
The mysterious British
The British parents remain somewhat mysterious. Only the mothers say anything much, and what they do say seems to give the impression that they are beaten down by life and generally unable to cope.
It’s not that these mothers are powerful women whose lives are buzzing except for one unruly teenager. They seem to have much more widely-ranging problems than that.
The fathers are completely mysterious. Some have actually left the family, and some are still around but do not seem to participate. Lizzie’s father in this week’s episode is just amazing — there but not there.
I am very aware that what we see in a TV documentary is a confection spun by the programme makers. It’s partly real, and partly a deliberate message.
Message and reality
The message in this series seems to be that fathers just don’t matter. Fathers’ roles, or lack of them, are not addressed by the programme makers. What matters, we are being told, is that Mother should be religious and strict. Then, apparently, teenagers will be contented instead of unruly.
The glimpses of reality that we get seem to suggest something different. In the British families, Father is not there (perhaps literally absent, or perhaps just emotionally absent). Mother is only just there, struggling with her own life to the extent that she cannot fully engage with her children.
In the foreign families, the adults engage fully with the children. They matter to each other, they have time for each other, they believe in each other.
Sam, one of the teenagers in in last week’s episode, Jamaica, was thoughtful and articulate about the differences. At one point he explains that life in his Jamaican family is nothing like the kind of family life he has been used to:
This family is pretty much nuts.
But at another point, teachers at his school in Jamaica are trying to explain how much potential they see in him. His reaction is:
It’s a little bit hard to believe when the only people who have ever said that to me all live in Jamaica.
That, I think, was very close to the heart of the matter. The teenagers in these programmes have parents who don’t engage with them and don’t believe in them as people (very likely because the parents don’t believe in themselves as people).
This is a strange, two-part theory. Part one is that parents are thought to be the main cause of their children’s success or failure in life. Part two is that experts and government policy makers, not parents, are the best people to decide how parenting should be done.
In this picture of parenting, parents are disempowered by being told that they are not fit to decide for themselves how to bring up their children. At the same time, they are blamed when their children turn out to have problems.
Furedi’s confusing style of writing can make it hard to unwrap what he’s saying. For example, he’ll write something like “From this perspective…”, meaning that he disagrees with the perspective, but then you just have to guess whether statements much later on in the article are still from that perspective, or are from Furedi’s own perspective.
Anyway, these quotes seem to sum up his view:
Parent blaming has become a popular pursuit of the political class.
The association of parenting with…omnipotent and grave consequences has the perverse consequence of disorienting family life. It breeds parental insecurity and leads to a situation where mothers and fathers lose faith in their ability to do what’s right for their children.
That’s in close agreement with my view of the BBC documentary, which advertises a formula for how parents ought to be. The implication is that because the British parents are not like that formula, their children have suffered, and the parents are to blame. The hidden assumption is that TV programme makers know best.
In reality, the British parents seem insecure. Father has no part to play. Mother does not seem to have the self-assurance to engage fully with their children (or anyone else, probably).
TV documentaries like this can only further undermine parents’ insecurity. Any parents who base their parenting on politically motivated experts or on TV documentaries are only likely to make things worse for both themselves and their children. But if Frank Furedi is right, that will happen increasingly.