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
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
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.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'