On Paternalism

Christopher Harries

The Welsh Conservatives leadership in Cardiff Bay has gone to great lengths to articulate the revolution they aspire to lead.

One area that should not escape the focus of the revolution is the approach towards children. A paternalist culture has permeated government, a culture that presumes politicians are better placed than parents to decide what is in the best interests of the child. If some paternalists were to get their way, the child would be taken from the parents the moment the umbilical cord is severed.

For instance, legislation has been passed in the Welsh Parliament to criminalise parents for disciplining their children. The so-called smacking ban is unnecessary legislation as existing legislation prohibited violence against children. The removal of the defence of ‘reasonable punishment’ coupled with moves to prevent parents from removing their child from relationships, sexuality and religion lessons, demonstrates a lack of trust in parents.

Such an approach seeks to impose a particular perspective on children fostering a belief that ministers in Cardiff Bay believe parents to be incapable of raising children as tolerant without such intervention. This heavy-handed approach is not confined to just relationship, sexuality and religious education, some would argue the approach towards Welsh-medium education in areas where the language is not prevalent is a political imposition with little regard for the impact on development of the child.

The paternalist approach may be well-intentioned but at the same time, it undermines parents, creating scenarios that absolve parents of assuming their responsibilities. School Breakfast clubs are one such example, an initiative that has admirable intentions but do they at the same time absolve some parents from assuming some of their responsibilities?

Of course, to some, the provision of free breakfasts, like school dinners is necessary to ensure the child does not go hungry or to provide much-needed child care to parents with commitments such as work. But such circumstances will not apply to all of those entrusting their children to the service, some of those placing their children in the school breakfast club will do so as it absolves them of taking responsibility for their child.

This may sound disingenuous, or in fact judgemental. Such an observation is not intended to judge the parents but to highlight some of the unintended consequences of a scheme namely that it can make some parents believe that there is no need to assume their responsibilities as the state will step into the void.

On the whole, parents want to do right by their children. They make sacrifices, trade-offs with the aim that their children will enjoy a standard of living comparable or exceeding their own. Of course, there are exceptions to that, but we should do not judge the majority of parents based on the inaction of a minority.

There is a role for the state to play however that role it is not one of a surrogate parent. A balance must be struck for parents to be able to assume their duties and the state to fulfil its role.

One way for the government to do this is to improve education with a particular focus on addressing poverty of opportunity. In education, emphasis must be placed on giving pupils opportunities that domestic circumstance may deprive them of, such as trips to museums, art galleries and the theatre. We should aspire for education to be more than just mere exam factories.

The opportunity should be taken to empower parents and change emphasis. So that one does not seek to supplant the role of the other. The government should work on the assumption that parents want the best for their children and seek to help deliver on that.

As politicians aspire for the public to entrust them with office, so politicians should trust parents.

One thought on “On Paternalism”

  1. In full agreement with your closing assertion:

    “The opportunity should be taken to empower parents and change emphasis. So that one does not seek to supplant the role of the other. The government should work on the assumption that parents want the best for their children and seek to help deliver on that.”

    In Wales, we have another agenda that is shared by all three main parties (Labour, Conservatives and Plaid Cymru) and that is to ‘grow Welsh-speakers’ via education’ irrespective of parental wishes:

    Cardiff teacher summed it up perfectly:



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