The mother and father of a lost opportunity

The Parent Trap: children, families and the new morality by Maureen Freely (Virago, £10.99, 245pp)

Reading Maureen Freely's polemic is rather like being accosted by someone at a party who bends your ear. It's something in the prose style, spare and stripped down, so the short sentences gallop along at a tremendous pace. Freely's aim is to demonstrate "how our panic about the family is not based on evidence that would stand up in court". She hopes to rebut the arguments of the new moralists who blame lazy, selfish parents for social breakdown and seek to stop the rot by re-educating and, where necessary, punishing them.

Reading Maureen Freely's polemic is rather like being accosted by someone at a party who bends your ear. It's something in the prose style, spare and stripped down, so the short sentences gallop along at a tremendous pace. Freely's aim is to demonstrate "how our panic about the family is not based on evidence that would stand up in court". She hopes to rebut the arguments of the new moralists who blame lazy, selfish parents for social breakdown and seek to stop the rot by re-educating and, where necessary, punishing them.

In reply, she argues that the problems have been exaggerated; they stem not from wicked individuals but from the effects of disadvantage and rapid social change. They can be cured only by a revolution in the workplace to take the pressure off harassed parents, and by large-scale community-based programmes to empower the poor.

Social affairs is a notoriously difficult arena. Often the statistics comparing then and now do not exist or, if they do, are open to a range of interpretations. Even so, dialectics like Freely's usually rely on a solid argument based, in part at least, on indisputable facts.

This is where The Parent Trap falls down. Freely has pretty much abandoned data, preferring instead to concentrate on newspaper coverage of the crisis in the family. She sees the media as all-powerful. Its accounts have dominated the debate with a distorted picture that has robbed individual parents of confidence.

For anyone who takes a daily newspaper, the inevitable re-telling of old stories that this approach entails is as tedious as being cornered by that party bore. And the analysis just is not sharp enough. For example, Freely insists that the contrasting cases of Diane Blood and Mandy Allwood persuaded many people in this country that "our government is allowing... the wrong people to have children, while actively obstructing those who should be having them instead."

When it comes to fertility treatment, our anxiety is often the one Prince Charles identified when he spoke about GM crops: we feel a deep unease that we are meddling with the sacred. But nature has always allowed "the wrong people" to have children.

Where interesting ideas crop up, they dangle undeveloped. Freely examines what she calls the cast of stock characters employed by the media to explore family problems. Among them is the paedophile. She argues that "we owe our present level of anxiety to years of campaigning by social action groups" but, frustratingly, no more is said. The impression is of a rough first draft.

There is also an extraordinary claim that it is "now perhaps too easy" to secure a conviction in cases involving child abuse. Freely declares that "this is the only crime for which there is no need for corroborative evidence".

Child sex abuse is like any sex offence in that it takes place in private. As with allegations of rape, where there is an absence of physical evidence juries must decide who is telling the truth. In cases involving children, only a tiny percentage of complaints end with a conviction. This has actually changed very little in the past 20 years.

The rare moments where some solid research does intrude are so enlightening that the reader longs for more. Despite Freely's assurances that family life now is not as bad as painted, she admits that step-fathers are massively over-represented as child-batterers and sexual abusers, even when you correct for variables like poverty and maternal age.

Therein lies the main problem with the whole thesis. If you set out to prove the opposition's arguments do not bear close scrutiny, then you really must marshal evidence that would "stand up in court" to support your own case.

Anecdotal accounts about your own complex family arrangements, or those of your friends - interesting though they are - just will not do. Too often this is Freely's fare.

The book tails off into the homespun wisdom of the author's personal proposals for a new bill of rights for parents. It extends to 14 clauses, some rambling and banal.

This was the point when I lost patience: "All parents must have the right to an independent life, even if they chose not to use it, firstly because they are not just parents but people with their own needs too, and secondly because if they have no access to an independent life, they will not be able to support their children."

As Freely points out, the new moralists have seized the initiative and formulated the ideas that propel government initiatives on family life. But The Parent Trap is not a sufficiently powerful rebuttal, even to begin to turn the tide.

Winifred Robinson is a presenter and reporter for BBC radio

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
    Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

    Take a good look while you can

    How climate change could wipe out this seal
    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

    Farewell, my lovely

    Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
    Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

    Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

    Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

    Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

    John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

    A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
    Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

    Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

    The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
    The 10 best pedicure products

    Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

    Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

    Commonwealth Games 2014

    Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
    Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

    Jack Pitt-Brooke

    Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
    How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

    Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game