Bringing up baby in the 21st century

Helen Proctor, The University of Sydney

Jonathan Biggins The 700 Habits of Highly Ineffective Parents, Victory Books, Melbourne, 2009 (272 pp). ISBN 9-78052285-653-8 (paperback) RRP $27.99.

Aric Sigman The Spoilt Generation: Why Restoring Authority Will Make Our Children and Society Happier, Piatkus, London, 2009 (208 pp). ISBN 9-78074994-148-2 (paperback) RRP $35.00.

Dr Benjamin Spock’s (1946/1958) paradigm-shifting Baby and Childcare famously begins with the exhortation, ‘Trust yourself’. You know more than you think you do’. But he did not really mean it. He did not really mean that parents—or more specifically, mothers—should stop listening to parenting experts. Rather, his book encouraged mid twentieth century parents to substitute one kind of authority for another; to reject the strict timetables and disciplinary regimes of an earlier generation of authorities, such as the New Zealander Frederick Truby King and instead adopt—as he saw it—a kinder, gentler, more instinctual baby and child wrangling approach. Spock’s book was enormously popular in the United States and beyond and it continued to be revised and updated until his death aged 94 in 1998. As a Spock baby myself (more or less) I have been sentimentally unable to toss out my own parents’ dog-eared, spine-creased paperback copy, which I suppose they must have purchased somewhere in Sydney around 1960.

For the 65 odd years since its first publication in the United States, Spock’s book, in its many editions, has shared shelf space in bookshops, libraries and homes with an ever-increasing number of other books of advice for parents. The 20th century has been described by social historians of the western world as ‘the century of the child’ and one way of measuring this is in printer’s ink—and there is no sign of abatement in the 21st century. With mass-produced baby and child care manuals (as distinct from specialist texts for health professionals) beginning to proliferate from about the 1920s, at least in the world of English language publishing, parents in countries like Australia have spent the past several decades being told by their authors what to do, what not to do and being assailed or assisted from all sides, depending on your point of view. The genre of parenting advice has been a wildly successful publishing phenomenon, even judged by the high standards of the broader field of advice, opinion and self-help literature.

Spock was not the first and will certainly not be the last authority to offer advice about how to manage all this advice (‘Trust yourself’). In fact for many years now it has been rare to find parenting advice which presumes ignorance rather than confusion on the part of its target audience. There is a lot of dodgy advice going around, many of the books say, but do not worry! Here I am to set you on the correct path! The following excerpt is from a recently-published parenting advice book by actor and comedian, Jonathan Biggins, who is quite well-known in Australia as a director of satirical political cabarets: ‘Like everything else, birth has become an opportunity for pundits, experts, charlatans, salesmen and snake oil merchants to muscle in on. If you can’t beat them, join them – now read on’ (p. 24). It is telling in itself that parenting advice books are so common as to warrant the commercial publication of whole books making fun of the genre. Biggins is, as he tells us, the father of twin nine year old girls and he perhaps set out to take his revenge on everyone who had ever offered him gratuitous advice (as distinct from practical support). Sending up the title of a more earnest self-help book, Biggins’ The 700 Habits of Highly Ineffective Parents playfully offers contradictory advice. Habit number 115, for example is ‘Heeding the advice of siblings with children’ whereas habit number 116 is ‘Ignoring the advice of siblings with children’ (pp. 115–116). ‘Yes it’s the complete opposite of everything I just said but that’s the way with raising kids’, jokes Biggins.

The first page of Biggins’ book provocatively reproduces the famous quatrain from the twentieth century English poet Philip Larkin,

They fuck you up, your Mum and Dad
They may not mean to, but they do
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

You are going to get it wrong, he seems to be saying in many parts of the book, so you may as well relax and have a laugh. The biographical note inside the back cover includes the claim that he himself is a ‘highly ineffective parent’ and is ‘currently ruining [his daughters’] lives’. Elsewhere, and I will come to this later, he seems almost as serious as any parenting guru and actually quite conservative.

Parenting advice has been a wildly successful publishing phenomenon.

Another familiar quote opens a parenting book written by an expatriate American pop psychologist, currently raising a family in England. The first paragraph of Aric Sigman’s book includes the maxim, ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child’ (p. ix). According to the book’s back cover, Sigman, like Biggins, is a ‘hands-on’ father in a happy nuclear family who apparently shares primary parenting and household duties with his wife. Historically, parenting books have frequently been written by men for women in the model of the doctor-patient relationship, where the male writer has some sort of professional status and the mother-reader is just plain folks. Sigman and Biggins are part of a more recent trend where ‘Dadness’ is in itself a qualification and Sigman is particularly keen to establish his credentials as a practising parent. But beyond that the two books are very different. Sigman’s central argument is that we are producing a generation of ‘little emperors’, of spoilt, over-entitled, selfish, violent, disrespectful, even criminally-inclined young people. The immediate cause of the problem is the spinelessness of the current generation of parents who are by and large too stupid, lazy or afraid to say a simple ‘no’ to their children. These people want to be friends with their own children instead of helping them grow up properly by setting boundaries and, yes, smacking them if the occasion demands.

Unlike either Spock or the avuncular Biggins, Aric Sigman most certainly does not want parents to relax. And he wants them to listen to him rather than trusting to any kind of wishy washy instinct. As is common with books of this genre his title ‘Dr’ appears on the front cover. But once you are inside the book he asks you to trust his opinions and beliefs as much as his learning. He tells us that he is ‘[addicted] to street anthropology’, and ‘while I’ve read the studies, it is real life that has convinced me’ (pp. x, 71). You quickly get the idea, reading Aric Sigman’s book, that he is a man on a mission. The book is somewhat of a harangue. This is a man who for 175 pages eschews, even condemns, any sort of weighing up or nuance as prevarication. All guns blazing Sigman declares Britain and the United States (and no doubt Australia by extension) to be in immediate risk of decline. We are in crisis. We are at a ‘tipping point’ (p. 6). We must act urgently and decisively to stop spoiling our children. He also expresses views about the corrupting influence of television and computers, over-tolerant alcohol-peddling parents, institutional childcare (very, very bad), emasculated fathers and a few varieties of bad mothers (career women, older mothers of only children, divorced mothers). And feminists and political correctness—the usual suspects.

Satirist Jonathon Biggins seems almost as serious as any parenting guru.

One of the more sympathetic moments in the book for me was Sigman’s confession about smacking his little son in a moment of terror after the child took a death-dodging run out onto a busy road. I was less on board with the meaning he took from the incident. In ‘23 countries’, says Sigman, this smack would constitute a criminal offence (p. 31). Leaving aside the fact that he does not report a single example of anyone who has actually been charged or convicted of assault in this way in any of these countries, this argument by emotionally-charged anecdote is a real problem in Sigman’s book, as it is in much of the public debate on these kinds of issues. Sigman frequently stacks the deck by using hypothetical or anecdotal evidence that is unable to be held up for proper scrutiny. He tells us, for example, that ‘a parent who holds their daughter by the wrists to prevent her from going out to have sex with a married man can be charged with assault’ as if this made up, under-developed scenario were a real clincher (p. 8). In a chapter on the damage done to children by ‘paternal deprivation’ he tells a number of stories of women who block their former male partners’ access to their own children by various means including the maliciously-exaggerated reporting of assault (pp. 84–106). A couple of the accounts seem to be taken from press reporting. Others are cases that Sigman ‘personally [knows] of’ (p. 93). He cannot tell us more of the details in these cases, he says, either out of respect for the families’ embarrassment (p. 84) or because of family law privacy provisions (p. 93). Sigman’s arguments demand that we take these stories on trust. In not one of the stories does the woman have a shred of decency or justification.

There is also a lot of citing of scientific studies in the book that conclusively prove this or that, as if all the world’s research about children’s health and welfare was in perfect agreement—except possibly for a few mad feminists (pp. 56, 70). This is the style of argument that blogger and author (Dr) Ben Goldacre (2009) described as ‘bad science’ in a recent on-air stoush with Sigman over children’s computer use—studies cited simplistically with over conclusive reading of their claims and ‘cherry picked’ for supporting evidence. There are no grey areas and no room for moderation in a struggle to save the children.

So where do Biggins and Sigman fit in to the larger literature of child-raising in the century of the child? One historian of the genre, Christina Hardyment (1983/2007), divides advice about raising children into two categories, ‘cuddly’ and ‘astringent’, with Truby King an example of astringent and Spock of cuddly. Another useful distinction she draws is one between ‘advice’ and ‘support’. Hardyment says that she first wrote her book, Dream Babies, as a new mother determined to challenge the authoritarian tone of much of the written advice she encountered. A new edition was produced with the arrival of her grandchildren. The babies and children in childcare manuals, she argues are ‘dreams’ which reflect the desires and anxieties of their authors, shaped by their social, historical and, indeed, family circumstances. Understanding the historical context of childcare advice for Hardyment was part of a feminist project to empower mothers. Sigman falls easily into the ‘astringent’ category, which despite his embattled tone is something of a contemporary trend in public discourse. Sigman’s belief in good old fashioned discipline for kids is currently quite in vogue, as suggested by the rating success of reality television shows like Supernanny with the professionally stern Jo Frost and her ‘naughty step’ (Jo Frost 2010) and Brat Camp where supposedly uncontrollable teenagers are straightened out with tough love at a Utah ranch (What is brat camp? n.d.). Sigman also inherits another great tradition of the century of the child and that is the moral panic. The language of peril and crisis has been so frequently applied to children and families during the century of the child that it is hard for me to read Sigman’s book as anything other than yet another cry of wolf.

Aric Sigman most certainly does not want parents to relax.

Biggins on the other hand is not doing moral panic at all. In fact he might possibly fit into Sigman’s category of ‘culturally convenient, ingratiating parenting books that promote the idea of children merely needing a “good enough parent”’ (Sigman p. 27). Although Biggins is making fun of the concepts of good and bad parenting, his book is actually gently conservative, painting a cosy picture of a contemporary nuclear family which is running along rather nicely, it seems. Biggins includes whole chapters on discipline (boundaries are not a bad idea) and childcare (all right in moderate doses) but he argues that most kids actually turn out pretty well and you will not contribute to the end of the world as we know it if you fail to follow his advice. Despite some moderately edgy moments—Mary and Joseph were bad parents as was Stalin’s mum, he jokes—essentially Biggins might trace his lineage back to the comfortable humour of Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post covers or to one of the original comedians of the modern hearth, Erma Bombeck. Family-based humour which plays with tension and pleasure in the modern nuclear family is another powerful tradition of the modern Anglophone west.

It is intriguingly possible that Sigman and Biggins, given their ages, also had well-thumbed copies of Spock on their parents’ bookshelves when they were children. Certainly they are both products of the physically easiest and safest decades in history for (most) children in the western world. Their own countries have been free of war, famine and pestilence. They have never lived in a world without breakfast television. But it is all too easy for a historian to complacently take the long view. An overall improvement in living standards does not guarantee the success or even safety of any of our individual children. Nor does it indemnify the future. The century of the child was also the century of the intensification of parenting. At the beginning of the 20th century, a parent might have considered themselves to have done a good job if their children were clean, housed, fed and healthy. At the beginning of the 21st, this had expanded to include the provision of advanced education in the ‘right’ school, prolonged financial support, detailed psychological encouragement and personal fulfilment. With the bar set so high, it is little wonder that Sigman and Biggins—and so many others—are able to sell their book ideas to publishers. Modern parenting provides a ready market for both moral panic and domestic humour. Personally speaking, I would rather have the humour.


Goldacre, B. 2009, ‘How Aric Sigman distorts the scientific evidence to mislead you’ [Online] Available: [2010, June 1].

Hardyment, C. 2007 (1983), Dream Babies: Childcare Advice from John Locke to Gina Ford, Frances Lincoln Ltd, London.

Jo Frost 2010, [Online], Available [2010, June 1].

Spock, B. 1958 (1946), Baby and Child Care, Bodley Head, London.

What is brat camp? n.d. [Online], Available: [2010, June 1].

Helen Proctor is a historian of education in the Faculty of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney. She is a co-author of School Choice: How Parents Negotiate the New School Market in Australia (Allen & Unwin, 2009) and a contributor to the collection, The Good Mother: Regulating Contemporary Motherhoods (Sydney University Press, 2010). A review of School Choice by Julie McLeod is available here.