The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

February 18th, 2007

Bad parents should be taught a lesson

Clichés often contain some truth; the well worn stereotype of the British as people who don’t much like children is, sadly, just. We hardly needed last week’s report from Unicef on the wellbeing of children in rich countries to tell us that we neglect our own quite shamefully. If neglect is abuse, then we are a nation of child abusers, both rich and poor. The children of the well-off suffer mildly from affluent neglect; the children of the poor suffer much more from the ordinary kind. They have no one to come home to, no one to look up to, nowhere to go except to hang out in the street.

Although I have some serious reservations about the report, the overall picture is so conclusively bleak, as far as a minority of British children goes, that we must accept some of its conclusions. In overall wellbeing, British children are the worst off in a list of 21 rich countries, and they are worst off, too, in the individual categories of relationships, behaviour and subjective wellbeing. Life is lonely, scary, unhealthy and dangerous for a large minority of British children.

Only 65% of British children eat the main meal of the day with their parents several times a week; thrown upon the company of other youngsters, only 42% of British children find them “kind and helpful”. In a survey by Britain’s National Family and Parenting Institute, quoted in the Unicef report, only 65% of children said they felt their parent(s) made them feel loved and cared for and only 76% said their parent(s) were always there when they needed them.

That makes a quarter or more of children who feel uncared for and neglected. When it comes to having an orderly, healthy breakfast before school, only about half of British secondary pupils say they get any. They may have been lying to shock the pollsters, but if not that means nearly half of all British parents cannot be bothered to ease their children into the day with breakfast.

Not surprisingly, British children are way ahead of others in the rich world in what are called risk behaviours. In plain English this means smoking, binge drinking, underage sex, eating junk food, obesity, teenage pregnancy, bullying, fighting and getting into trouble. In some cities the children are becoming feral. The recent shooting dead of two 15-year-old boys in the hellish estates of south London are the extreme manifestation of this terrible neglect.

What stands out from the Unicef report is that in this country parents either do not care enough about children to make time for them, or they cannot afford to make time for them. With high numbers of single parents and stepparents, with high numbers of irresponsible and absent fathers and full-time working mothers, that is understandable. All these things impose tremendous stresses on parents. Children get pushed out of their rightful time and place in their parents’ lives, more so here than in the rest of Europe. What can be done?

It would be a start to enable — if not to force — parents to spend more time with their children. It seems blindingly obvious that this government’s policy of driving as many women out to work as possible is counterproductive. The only acceptable reason for doing so is to control the welfare queens, who think having lots of babies will win them a meal ticket for decades — and that could surely be dealt with differently.

Most women want to stay home with their babies. Only 6% want to work full time and all mothers know that childcare is an expensive lottery. Yet 55% of working women are in full-time jobs. It is nonsense to shift money about to provide “affordable childcare”, which is neither good nor affordable; it is less good than what most mothers provide themselves and it costs more, all in, than letting her stay at home.

The result is that working mothers are harried and tired, especially if they are single, and short of the time their children — and their wider families — need. Part of the reason for so many women working such long hours, against their real wishes, is the high cost of housing. That is the root of many social evils and there is no question that a big housebuilding programme must be a top priority for the next government.

It also seems obvious to me that fathers should be held firmly accountable for their children, as David Cameron argued on Friday. I believe that process should start with dismantling the crazy benefits system which makes a man substantially better off — cash in hand at the end of the week — if he abandons his wife or girlfriend, and which enables a feckless never-married girl to be just as well off as a respectable abandoned wife or quasi-wife. Unfortunately the government has proved quite unable to run the Child Support Agency and there seems little reason for optimism about this.

What is needed — and it is something governments cannot and should not try to engineer — is cultural change. We need a lot more of what John Stuart Mill called moral disapprobation; these days it is called stigma. It is a good thing to show disapproval, even anger. It is wrong for men to abandon their children. It is wrong for a girl to have a baby without having another parent for it. It is wrong to have children whom you cannot afford to support. It is wrong to neglect your children, to fail even to give them breakfast and make sure they get to school.

In the past 30 years there has been a general horror of being judgmental, but why? These actions, wrong in themselves because they cause suffering to children, are also wrong because they cause serious social problems for the rest of us. Society should express disapprobation, forcefully.

Governments can follow in expressing such disapproval. They could deny irresponsible single mothers the privilege of independent housing and offer them educational care hostels only. They could try punishing irresponsible fathers in their pockets. They could order schools to provide after-school exercise and clubs and hobby groups, every day, year round. They could give massive tax breaks to stay-at-home mothers and to marriage. They could support charitable mentoring schemes.

Above all, they could scrap the laws that terrify responsible adults out of trying to control other people’s children. All this does, however, involve being judgmental so I don’t suppose it will happen.