Leading Article: Family devalues

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CONSIDER the modern child. She (or he) arrives home from school to an empty house and spends much of the evening inher bedroom watching television or a video, playing computer games, listening to tapes or CDs. Later, the parents or stepparents arrivehome; they may have plans for a night out or have brought work home from the office. There may be a family meal, but probably a brief, microwaved one. Contrast that with the popular image of the 1950s family - father with newspaper, mother with her knitting, child on the hearth with jigsaw or book, in what was called the 'living' room and which had to be just that because other rooms were mostly too numbingly cold to inhabit.

Like most attempts to describe private lives, these are stereotypes. But nobody can deny that the experience of childhood has changed profoundly in the past 40 years. The Americans have measured these things, as Americans do. A University of Maryland sociologist found that in 1985 parents spent an average of 17 hours a week with their children, against 30 hours in 1965. The figures are quoted in The Parenting Deficit, published last week by Demos, the non-party think-tank, and written by Amitai Etzioni, professor of sociology at George Washington University. 'Nobody likes to admit it,' writes Etzioni, 'but between 1960 and 1990 American and British society allowed children to be devalued.' The nuclear family has been replaced by the nuclear child, alone in its centrally- heated bedroom.

This is a complex subject, which is not easily debated in the age of the sound-bite. Suggest that children are better off with two parents and you will be accused of insulting single parents. But it is not an insult to single parents to argue that, because bringing up children is labour-intensive and emotionally draining, two pairs of hands will find it easier than one. Suggest that children are often neglected when both parents have jobs and you will be accused of wanting to return women to the kitchen sink. But the truth is that children have lost large amounts of their mother's time and attention without, usually, any corresponding increase in their father's. The effects of divorce and single parenting are, according to research on both sides of the Atlantic, devastating and long-lasting: on average, the children perform worse at school, get into more trouble with the police, suffer more mental illness and earn less when they grow up. Class and poverty are part of the explanation, but not the whole. This is hardly surprising. Educational researchers agree about almost nothing - except that parental time, help and support are among the biggest influences on school success.

Labour talks 'women's rights'; Tories talk 'family values'. Since children do not vote, neither party troubles its collective head about the practicalities of children's rights. Government policy is to make British industry more 'efficient' and 'competitive', partly by making fewer employees work longer hours. Only one minister - Alistair Burt, a junior minister at the Department of Social Security - has voiced the thought that 'too many companies demand outrageous time commitments without thought of the damage to family structure'. Can the Tories accept that - particularly when there are nearly 3 million unemployed - it makes sense to bring down the standard working week? But can Labour and its union allies accept that this must entail some decline in average wages? And can the rest of us accept that, for the sake of our children, we may therefore have to earn less and spend less?