What is bad parenting?

Days away from his third birthday, Joshua Barnett drowned while his mother was checking Facebook on her phone. It’s hard not to immediately judge her, but hand on heart, can you say you’ve never been distracted by social media when you should have been paying attention to your children? Sleep deprivation or just plain and simple boredom are standard when babysitting.

Claire Barnett was sentenced to 5 years imprisonment for child cruelty, however, in her case, this seems to be more than just a moment of inattention but rather a consistent pattern of neglect.

Most of us make lots of mistakes when taking care of our children, but Claire Barnett made them all the time, with neighbors reporting that Joshua played alone for hours at a time in the front yard in nothing but a nappy. Lets just say that Claire is the standard when it comes to bad parenting, but when dealing with such issues there are a number of contradictions.

For instance, there’s the badness that is harmful, about which everyone shakes their head and expresses dismay. Then there’s the badness that is practically aspirational, the kind of slapdash behavior that only serves to demonstrate that you’re a real person, not just a Mummy, after all. Spending too long on Facebook can fall into either of these categories; where it ends up can depend not just on luck, consistency or even morality, but on where you find yourself located within our current social hierarchies.

Among parents, its usual to tell stories about how bad a parent you are. We can do this because however judged we feel, our bad parenting is never at risk of having our children taken away, gaining the reassurance that you aren’t that bad after all. In these cases, playing the bad parent serves as a way of gaining reassurance. Our anecdotes of failure test the waters to see if others are facing the same challenges. Like calling up your friend to tell them how you can’t get your child to take a nap, only to learn that she’s still in her pajamas and has barely been able to feed her two year old three spoonfuls of weetabix, and its 3pm.


How would such a confession come across from someone seen as less ‘entitled’ to have children. The parenting skills of less privileged members of society and marginalized groups are usually deemed inferior. This type of parenting is judged as bad, not because of the actions of the parents, but by the location the child lives.

Bad parenting can mean anything from engaging in physical abuse to giving your child an apple that isn’t organic. It has become very hard to tell what qualifies as bad parenting, and what is as an everyday transgression that most parents cannot avoid.

Are we all a misstep from being labelled the next Claire Barnett? Maybe not, but some parents live closer to judgement than others.


What is your definition of bad parenting?


First published at newstatesman.com

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