29 May 2014

Clever adults make great parents? Discuss

Just because you have a string of qualifications under your name, it doesn’t mean you are going to be a great parent. So goes the latest pronouncement from Chancery, in the guise of Mrs Justice Parker, who made it during a custody hearing involving a mother who has a learning disability
. The child wouldn’t necessarily be better off being brought up by someone more intellectually able, she said.  According to her Honour, “many clever people make absolutely rotten parents,” and that courts should not necessarily have negative attitudes to those less intellectually blessed.
Well, of course. Genius doesn’t guarantee great parenting technique, as anyone who has ever read a biography of Charles Dickens will acknowledge. From the negligent Uncle Quentin in the Famous Five, who was forever (rather handily for plot reasons) locked away in his study, to any number of misery memoirs from the children of famous brain boxes, it does not follow that the higher the IQ, the better the upbringing. Indeed, one could also class the stereotypical parenting practice enjoyed by the professional classes as highly suspect, what with its hours of bought-in child care, enforced journeys around museums, the ever-present threat of an afterschool tutor and hopelessly high expectations in the collective fields of musical aptitude, mathematical ability and enjoyment of Renaissance art. Indeed, only the other day my youngest son (9), told me in no uncertain terms that “the National Gallery is the most boring place in the world. Second only to the Prado,” a weary summary of privilege, frustration and parental expectation (mine) in one fell swoop.
And yet, intuitively, one also might be tempted to think that in the thwarted circumstances of a custody battle, the best parent is probably going to be the one with lots of books in the house, where the television is usually tuned to BBC4, or Newsnight, and where there might be violins propped up in the drawing room. Or, put more precisely, the sort of house that you might quite like to live in yourself. I have never presided over a custody arrangement, nor would I wish to. But in making the judgment of Solomon I suspect that many well-thinking lawyers favour parents who, to put it simply, live the sort of life and look after their children in the same sort of way that they do. It is human nature to approve of people who live life like you. As anyone who has ever heard anyone say at a dinner party “oh we sent our child to (insert name of private school) only because everyone else does,” knows. This is not new.  In a 2006 survey by Bristol University, it was found that social workers too tended to have negative attitudes to less intellectually capable parents, sometimes even breaking up loving families for no other reason than they feared the parents weren’t bright enough.
Perhaps what this insight provided by this sad case all boils down to is that the legal profession itself needs to cast its net a little wider. No, not in terms of intellectual apititude, but in terms of background, so that one has a group of judges from different backgrounds who won’t simply favour the parents from what one might call a ‘broadsheet’ household.  The sense of wealthy privilege which comes streaming out of the Inns of Court is legendary. Maybe if more judges came from a ‘normal’ background, then parents wouldn’t have to fear competing in some sort of intellectual high jump in order to prove they can look after their offspring perfectly well.
And I would guess that even if that happens, not many judges can be as counter intuitive as the wise Mrs Justice Parker, who stated that “many people who are intellectually impaired…are warm and caring and provide children with a wonderful upbringing.” Plenty of children outshine their parents intellectually. What’s needed is love, and for that you don’t need any qualifications.

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