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

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Jess Glynne is UK number 1

music

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
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.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor