In the past few weeks I’ve attended two fascinating one-day conferences, both of which were memorable for stimulating new thinking about issues that I’m working on, and for creating opportunities to meet and make connections with people working in related fields whose work I’ve admired from a distance.
The first event, on young fatherhood and masculinity from a global perspective, was organised by Francesca Salvi at the University of Portsmouth. I was one of the invited speakers, and the conference gave me a chance to share my thoughts on young men, fatherhood and family relationships, based on two research projects with young men in which I’ve been involved.
One of the aims of the conference was to publicise a new study of teenage fatherhood in South Africa, which Fran is leading with Deevia Bhana from the University of Kwazulu Natal. Deevia gave the key note lecture and also brought along two South African colleagues to talk about their research on related topics. I was intrigued to learn about the ways in which dominant notions of masculinity played into debates about young fatherhood in the South African context. It was clear that, for some groups of young men, reckless sexual behaviour, with no thought for the consequences, was regarded as a badge of masculinity. But the question was left open as to whether taking responsibility for a child you’ve fathered had any place in young men’s notions of what it means to be a man.
Deevia Bhana giving the key note lecture at the Portsmouth conference
These presentations gave me plenty to think about, particularly in relation to our own plans for new research on young fatherhood, relationships and wellbeing in the UK, and it was good to talk with Deevia and Fran about possible links between our two projects. There were a number of other interesting presentations too, including Carmen Lau-Clayton sharing the findings from the Following Young Fathers study, and Paul Hodkinson talking about becoming a primary or equal caregiving father.
Paul was one of the organisers of the other conference that I attended recently, at the University of Surrey, where the focus was more broadly on family and parenting issues. I was keen to hear about the research that Paul has been doing recently with Ranjana Das, on new fathers, mental health and social media, which has connections with projects that I’m currently working on with colleagues at The Open University and elsewhere: not just the young fathers and relationships project, but also work I’ve recently begun with Kerry Jones and Sam Murphy on fathers and perinatal loss, which we hope will include an exploration of how men use the internet for peer support after the loss of a child.
The Surrey event also included a rich menu of fascinating presentations on issues relating to parenting and family relationships. I was particularly intrigued to hear about research by Vicki Harman and her colleagues, on the surveillance of school lunchboxes, and the issues that it highlighted around family privacy and the role of social institutions with regard to parents and children. Listening to the talk reminded me of my own visceral negative reaction, as a parent, when I first read about instances of schools inspecting children’s lunchboxes and implicitly shaming parents in front of their children, for not providing their offspring with food that accorded with current notions of healthy eating. The selection and preparation of food is one of the most intimate areas of parent-child relations, and for external agencies to interfere with it can feel like an unwarranted violation of that relationship. In my mind I connected debates around this issue with other recent controversies surrounding the relative roles and responsibilities, vis a vis children, of parents and the state – such as the proposed ‘named person’ policy in Scotland.
Charlotte Faircloth giving the open plenary at the Surrey conference
This was all particularly interesting, coming after an excellent plenary presentation on the rise of ‘intensive’ parenting by Charlotte Faircloth. Charlotte’s talk raised questions for me about links between the intensification of expectations around parenting and debates about the extension of childhood. Charlotte spoke about the increasing privatisation of parenting, but some of the things she said made me wonder whether, in certain ways, the role of parent hasn’t begun to be assumed by public bodies – and by extension, the state. It put me in mind of recent work by Frank Furedi – Charlotte’s erstwhile colleague at Kent and a fellow member of the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies – on the quasi-parental role now assumed by some higher education institutions (For example, I was surprised to discover recently that the student mentors allocated to freshers at my niece’s university are actually described as ‘parents’.) Frank spoke about these themes in his keynote lecture at the ‘Parenting and personhood’ conference that I attended in Canterbury two years ago, and also in a recent talk in Budapest that you can watch online. There’s room for further research, I think, on the spread of ‘parentalism’ beyond the confines of the nuclear family, and what it means for children’s and young people’s socialisation.
Once again, thanks to Fran at Portsmouth, and Paul and Ranjana at Surrey, for organising two stimulating and memorable events.
The slides from my presentation at the Portsmouth conference can be found here: