It doesn't take much to summon up parental guilt. Incomplete research, tendentiously reported, can send mothers and fathers into paroxysms of introspection. Lately, a claque of social pessimists has made a fat living from haranguing working parents, their assertions usually based on slight data and historical myopia. If you want to see bad and cruel parents, Victorian fiction is littered with better examples. Anyone tempted by a bout of latter-day panic about the parenting skills of today's commuters should read Dickens (Dombey and Son), Samuel Butler (The Way of All Flesh) or Edmund Gosse (Father and Son).
In such a climate, it is refreshing to turn to an empirical study that is both informative and calm. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has not always in the past avoided exaggeration; charities get income by alarming the public. But its report, based on a sample survey of children aged 8 to 15, is measured. It gives no comfort to the panickers, or those politicians (Labour as well as Conservative) who have made the decline in behavioural standards a stock item in their rhetoric.
If real children have worries, they are often about doing well at school. Today's children, including teenagers, accept the legitimacy of their parents' judgements about what they should and should not do - within reason. That most children think it is up to them how they do their hair but up to their parents whether they should be allowed out of the house seems a deeply reasonable position.
If the NSPCC's sample is representative of youth in the late Nineties and so of the generation that will move into adulthood in the first decade of the next century, then Britain's social prospects look benign. Family life, which includes contact between children and their grandparents, is in fine fettle and looks set to remain that way.
The fact is, we don't know how things used to be. We rely on anecdote and adults' selective memory of their own childhood years. With caution, however, it is hard not to register the survey's findings about the extent of touching, kissing and cuddling by parents of their children as a real change. Whether we attribute it to Dr Spock or Penelope Leach or to wider shifts in sensibility, family life is more loving and physically warmer - and that must be an improvement.
Two social facts stick out of this generally happy picture of parents and their children in modern England and Wales. If we say the first is obvious, that does not mean it is recognised in public policy or election manifestos. It is the existence of a problem group - "class" is too loaded a term - where parents do not do homework with their children, where they shout more, where material want pinches, where fathers are absent, where children are slapped rather than given explanations. This group is not the same as the statisticians' income classes D and E; all of its members do not live on council estates. But it has a real social presence, and on the evidence of this report the experience of its children is consistently different - and worse - than that of the majority.
There are lessons here for public policy. They are not simple and they do not all involve extra spending. But they do involve tilting money for schooling, community supports, housing, jobs and so on in particular directions - in other words, redistribution. And that is, we note in passing, a word not much to heard on the hustings.
A second note struck in this report concerns fathers. Through the figures can be heard the voices of children, rich and poor, teenage and younger, and they say something compellingly simple: we love our fathers and would like to spend more time with them.
Here is a loud and urgent message. It mocks those men and women who, self-servingly or for reasons of principle, assert that it doesn't matter whether children are brought up with their fathers - and that has implications for the questions of divorce, access and child support. Some 31 per cent of children with a parent who does not live at home - usually the father - never see that parent. What a mound of sub-happiness and lost opportunity for fun, love and instruction lie behind that figure.
Many children whose fathers do live with their mothers would evidently love to spend more time with dad. It is probably fair to say, though the evidence comes mostly from journalism and anecdote, that the reverse holds true, too. There is thus an imbalance in many families' lives, and one of which men - increasingly emotionally literate - are aware. But not, it seems, aware enough to seek to change their conditions of employment, or renegotiate domestic terms of trade. Yet more reason - women will say - for scepticism about "new men", or at least about the existence of men willing to do more than talk about their novelty.
This report is published at a good moment. In the "public space", the electoral battle rages. Meanwhile, in the private spaces of families and employing organisations, men and women struggle to make a satisfying balance of work, material aspirations, domestic chores and the needs of their children.
Working women have long had to align the various and sometimes conflicting roles. Now the heat is on working men to effect a healthier relationship between children and life outside the home. They don't need to read the report. But they do need to hear those childish voices.Reuse content