Why must we hurt them?

A belief in equality does not give anyone the right to smash up their children's lives

YOU CANNOT get away from The Family these days. It is everywhere. Politicians, pundits and social workers are all consumed with the collapse of the family. This week the writer Francis Fukuyama suggested in his book The Great Disruption that the natural order needed to be reinstated in the world, commanding women to go back to being happy little kitchen slaves. Then, unexpectedly, the Lord Chancellor shelved the controversial divorce reforms. I can see why. They were a muddle because they tried to avoid the issue of personal morality.

Even Tony Parsons, that hero of the mercilessly self-serving Eighties, has just published a tender fictional exploration of divorce. Maybe these second thoughts are arising because we are also getting the voices of children who are affected by the mess that people are making of family life. And for the first time people are paying attention.

Substantial and incontrovertible evidence is before us to show just what is happening to these kids. The Childline study published in 1998 revealed how thousands of children affected by family break-ups are in terrible turmoil because there is nobody else they feel they can talk to. Joanna Trollope, when researching her novel Other People's Children said that she had never before come across so much hidden pain. This week, Channel Four begins a series on stepchildren where they get the opportunity to speak out. Tonight, Jemma Carter, too old already at the age of 14, describes her troubled life with three different stepfathers so far.

A series on divorce by the BBC gave similar access to children and their testimonies haunted me for days. A major Rowntree report on divorce last year concluded that although many children can cope well enough with the immediate trauma of their parents separating, others experience a lifetime of difficulties. The interesting thing about this complex report was that it was received by people as a political document. Those on the right used it to convince themselves that traditional family values had been vindicated and those on the left to "prove" the exact opposite. With four out of 10 marriages resulting in divorce, increasing numbers of children are going through the experience of watching the two parents who created them breaking all the bonds that mean so much to a child.

You can never pretend to resurrect those bonds. The children are already too wise by then to believe in such miracles. I remember a young daughter of a divorced friend telling me what she missed most was the love between her parents. They loved her and were nice enough to each other, but she knew she would never again see the teasing, the closeness, the friendship her parents had once had. She pretended to be happy because all the adults did the same. Then no one had to deal with the truth.

Sebastian Kraemer, the eminent child psychiatrist, sees this all the time: "Children are deeply hurt, their lives are shattered because the people who got together to make them can't keep together to bring them up." Some, he says, become tough, others very worldly and disturbed. What makes it worse is that with the pill and feminism, middle-class families at least made the choice to have their children. New dads got all involved and excited. Working mums felt doubly blessed even though it was doubly exhausting. I can't count the number of delighted-parenthood, joys-of- birth conversations I have had with successful couples over the years.

All would consider themselves on the left politically. Here at last we seemed to be getting family life which was not by definition patriarchal but equal. Children were seen as individuals who had views, something that even a generation back would have been unthinkable. Today more than half of these families are separated and part of complicated new formations. All the break ups were caused by one partner finding another fantastic new love. None of the children were consulted even in these articulate middle-class homes about what was happening in their lives. And the left proclaims a belief in children's rights.

There is an established way of thinking about this issue which is now unsustainable. If you are a child of the Sixties or Seventies, a feminist and an egalitarian, you are simply not allowed to support family values. Speaking last week at a Fabian Society/New Times conference on modernising the left for the 21st century, Tony Giddens, Will Hutton and Polly Toynbee agreed that traditional family structures had no place in a world of gender equality and increasing democratisation of society. This was progress, we were told.

It was good that people could exercise their rights and freedoms to make and remake families as they chose. This distinguished the real left from vociferous neo-conservatives like Melanie Phillips. I beg to differ. I think the left needs seriously to put down these platitudes and think again about the family and the destruction that has been caused by freedom- loving adults. We need real debates and self-reflection, not a series of bun fights between ideologues. I cannot see why a belief in equality gives anyone the right to smash up other people's lives. It is time to stop using the political to cover up the personal.

It is quite clear to me that the rights of a child, if taken seriously, cannot but reduce personal freedom and some adult rights. But that is what being grown up is about. As Freud said: "Children are completely egotistic; they feel their needs intensely and strive ruthlessly to satisfy them." They do so without any regard for the consequences of their actions.

Maturity is supposed to give you that knowledge, that awareness, that capacity for self-sacrifice. None of this is in evidence when we examine family values beyond middle England. The cult of ruthless self-fulfilment cannot be allowed to be the only principle on which we base our lives not only because it is destructive but also because it does not make sense in terms of modern left politics.

In recent years, people like Professor AH Halsey have argued that we need to reinstate the principles of ethical socialism in our personal lives in order to control the libertarian impulse. The idea of duty and of obligations lies at the heart of left-wing politics. How can we ignore these or make excuses when making decisions which involve people who are closest to us? Many of us simply do not accept this debate on the terms it has been framed.

A stable family is an ideal we must at least try to achieve. And this is recognised by some people in New Labour. In 1995, Tony Blair said: "The family is important because it is in the family that self-respect and respect for others are learned, that the limits of freedom are first experienced and the roots of responsibility grow."

The problem is that, just as the right says there is no such thing as society, too many on the left are frantic to prove that there is no such thing as family. Both are wrong and both need to understand that you cannot have the one without the other and - most importantly - that unless we have both, our children will have no future.

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