In the bleakest corners of our biggest cities, children, we are now told, are wandering about in “man deserts”.
Their fathers have all left, if they were ever there in the first place. Their schools are all full of female teachers. A whole generation, plodding along like dromedary camels, unsupped on the milk of manly kindness.
A report published later this week by the Centre for Social Justice, Iain Duncan Smith’s right-leaning think-tank, will claim that in some areas, particularly around Liverpool, 75 per cent of children are growing up in families headed by one parent – almost always the mother. One in four primary schools has no male teachers, and those that do have very few.
One can only wonder what David Attenborough would make of life in the man desert (though it is a poorly calculated phrase. Australia’s Great Sandy Desert is not so named for its scarcity of sand). A rolling savannah of unwashed cars and ungrouted tiles, where cupboards slowly fill with unopenable jars and bin bags pile up, while the downy growths on the upper lips of adolescents grow ever more wispy, as they await that first fatherly stroke of the Mach 3 that will never come.
The consequences are predictably dire. Family breakdown costs the economy £46bn a year, it claims. The children of the man desert are 50 per cent more likely to do badly at school, struggle to make friends, find it difficult to control their behaviour, or to overcome anxiety and depression.
It is no surprise that it is also the Centre for Social Justice that came up with the highly controversial idea of giving tax breaks to married couples, a policy that the Prime Minister recently declared he would introduce before the next election. So their agenda is clear.
This tax break option is restated here, as part of a featherweight set of solutions to the problem. The others are: more should be done to remove the stigma of seeking counselling and relationship help. That they can’t come up with any better may be the most illuminating part of the report. However serious the problem – and it is serious – short of direct social engineering, there is almost nothing government can do.
Stigma, really, is at the heart of the problem. It has been a hard fought battle, over the past 100 or so years, to remove the crippling stigma attached to divorce or, worse, a child being born out of wedlock. There are no statistics available for the impact on children of growing up in hate-filled houses with two parents who despise each other, but it’s unlikely to be all that positive, and plenty of children emerge just fine from their single-parent upbringings.
The range of options at the Government’s disposal amount to little more than deliberate restigmatisation – to turn back the clock on liberal progress. When the Prime Minister and others have sought to make the case for marriage to be recognised in the tax system they have always pointed out that it is “not about the money, but about the message”.
In free societies, however, governments do not have propriety over the message their policies send, and for the millions of people who might be single, unmarried, or divorced, the message is just a highly unhelpful and profoundly insulting one. Of course, it is also a gentle restigmatising of, for the most part, poor people; and a convenient way to slip a few extra quid back into the pockets of the happily married folk, who are far less likely to need it. So at least it is consistent.
Winnie-the-Pooh has gone digital
A new app contains the original stories with some extra “content”, including an illustration of the bear of little brain using a smartphone to take a photo of the Shard. Oh, the horror. But what has rather predictably shocked and appalled is that the stories have been abridged, to cater for the shorter attention span of 21-century kids.
“Today’s children’s attention spans are slightly different to how they were in 1926,” said Kristian Knak, the app’s developer. “We have a minute to get them on board. If not, they will move on to the next app. We have to make sure the story moves on at a good pace.”
For middle-aged Pooh aficionados, it is the end of days, otherwise known as progress. For anyone who’s witnessed it, no one forgets the terrifying sight of a toddler, not yet fully blessed with the gift of speech, swiping through multimedia on a tablet computer until he gets to the one he likes, and pressing play. It’s not altogether surprising that their brains will probably emerge hardwired rather differently from the rest of us, and any attempt to put Pooh back in to the matrix of childhood should be commended, not condemned.