Play and Responsibility: Parenting in Denmark – Dr. Hanne Knudsen

Dr. Hanne Knudsen’s (Aarhus University, Denmark) talk ‘Playful hyper responsibility: Deconstructing parental responsibility’ described how parents are being encouraged to take on new obligations through playing of games with other parents.

Hanne described a series of historical shifts in how parental responsibility in Denmark was approached by the state.  From 1814 onwards responsibility was framed in terms of rules such as send children to school unless they are ill.  Then in the 1950’s expert advise and demands became more prominent, describing what parents ought to do, such as helping children with their homework. It was recognised, around the turn of the century, that the amount of advice offered was too great and so the emphasis was on encouraging parents to reflect and imagine how they could take responsibility to better take care of their child. profilephoto

The Responsibility Game is an example of how schools are encouraging parents to reflexively engage with being more responsible parents.  Parents play the board game in groups on parent’s evening.  They are given 30 sentences (e.g., Who is responsible for ensuring the child learns to lose a game with good grace?) and they have to decide where the responsibility lies between school, mutual, or home. Then the parents are asked to decide how these responsibilities will be met (e.g., Telling grandmothers not to lose games on purpose). Finally, the parents sign up to performing these responsibilities.

The key focus was what is going on in this situation where parents are made to play a game and in doing so in front of peers determine they will be more responsible, and effectively better parents in the future?

To answer this question, Hanne drew on Derrida’s (1996) notion of ‘classical’ personal responsibility as described in ‘The Gift of Death’, which identifies two forms of responsibility:  general responsibility (e.g., You respond to general obligations, rules, ethics, duties. You can account for your actions) and absolute responsibility (e.g., You do what you think is right. You stand alone, You do not respond to anyone, do not account for anything).  In Hanne’s analysis, there is always a conflict between absolute and general responsibilities, quoting Derrida,

“The ethical therefore ends up making us irresponsible. It is a temptation, a tendency, or a facility that would sometimes have to be refused in the name of responsibility that doesn’t keep account or give account, neither to man, to humans, to society, to one’s fellows, or to one’s own. Such a responsibility keeps it secret; it cannot and need not present itself” (Derrida 1992: 62).

The game attempts to align the parent’s absolute responsibilities with the child’s best interests but this creates tensions with existing general responsibilities and this leaves the parent unable to meet all their responsibilities and so either more or less responsible.


In practice it is likely that parents will agree to do something (e.g., read to their child more) but not actually do so. Thus as older forms of ethics are superseded by new ethics of play, this scenario in which parents are meant to become more responsible by agreeing in public to be better parents may lead to parents agreeing in public but break, have no intention of keeping, or fail to live up to these brief and public visions of their better selves.

James Duggan

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