Presentation, Class and the Bad Parent

I was speaking to a teaching assistant last week who said to me that ” the families who need help don’t get it. Its always the snobs who get help.” A bit harsh but I think she may have a point . The relationship between families and service providers is fraught with assessments, power inequality and an almost incessant need to be able to perform and represent yourself in the best possible light. There is a micro-politics to getting services and if you know how the system wants you to be, then you are more likely to get what you want and I guess that’s where a class bias comes in. But I suspect its more complicated than that.

Apologies for the social theory, but for me its all very Goffman meets Althusser. On the one hand its all about presenting yourself in the right kind of way and recognising the type of performance and character that you need to adopt, whilst at the same time having your identity positioned by public sector discourse and the institutional requirements of the state. The French social theorist Althusser called this latter process ‘interpellation’ and the essence of his argument is that because of the power of government institutions and their ideologies, there are only certain ways to be.

Until I became the parent of a disabled child I used to think Althusser’s theories were a bit clunky and deterministic, but actually for a great many service users and benefits claimants, the notion that our identities are positioned by the requirements of the state is not an unreasonable one.  In the specific example of parent’s with disabled children there seem to be a number of identities available to us. Good parents, Bad [attitude] Parents and Failing Parents.

The essence of Good Parents is that they become involved.  They work in partnership with professionals, they believe that practitioners and politicians always have their children’s best interests to heart and they tend to volunteer for things. Good parent’s get services because they have learnt how the system works. They understand what to apply for and how to perform and represent themselves in the right kind of way.

Bad [attitude]Parents rage against the inadequacies of service provision, they challenge, they take local authorities to tribunal or court and they too may get what they want. But often their resistance and challenge to authority will come at a price. They will be labelled as maladjusted. They will be described informally as parent’s who have failed to come to terms with their child’s disability and their decision to challenge the system is often seen as evidence of that failure. This happens in the informal culture that surrounds and feeds into most formal decision making.

The third performance or identity that is recognised, and the other way that you can get support is if you adopt or are forced to adopt the character of Failing Parent. In this identity, parents get support because they have failed to present themselves in a way that convinces the assessor that they can cope without it. A range of tools are used to assess and judge parental capacity and need for support and inherent within that judgement is the notion that in some way a child or young person might be at risk.

In reality over time most of us are all of the above.

But there is another category of parent; one that is neither good, nor bad, nor failing. For them there are no performances and no positioning by an overweening state. There is no need to present themselves as coping or failing, no need to struggle to get services and no judgements.  They are parent’s who cope because when they need support it is there. When they need time and an extra pair of hands it is there; when they need expertise it is there, and when they need financial support for the additional costs involved in bring up a disabled child, it is there.

I’m not sure what you’d call this last category of parent because I’ve never met one. In truth, in the service environment in which we live they can’t exist. But I know its the kind of parent you’d get more of, if  services where provided by right rather than by performance.


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