Leading Article: For modern parents, choices come guilt-edged

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Information brings guilt. The more we know, the harder it gets to be sure we are doing the right thing.

This applies to all aspects of our lives, as we know more and more about the consequences of our actions. It applies to food, where new ways of shortening our lifespans are suspected every week, and old poisons turn out to be good for us. It applies to shopping, where we might find out that we have unwittingly contributed to a political party by enriching some grocery magnate, or exploited child labour in the Third World, or destroyed the environment (more than is strictly necessary).

But it applies above all to children, to whom parents have an awesome responsibility. Apart from running a mental database of food and health scares, parents have to choose the right school, censor all incoming material and - this week - worry about how much time they spend at home.

Because modern life offers us endless information and endless choices, it also promises endless guilt. If you don't have a choice, at least you can't make the wrong decision. Time was, in our hazy retro-vision, when it was all much simpler. Children had to eat their greens, brush their teeth and get plenty of fresh air, and all would be well.

But we want information, and we no longer think "I'd rather not know". Most of us feel well-qualified to make our own choices, even if we agonise about them. We accept that a permanent nagging doubt is a condition of existence in the Information Age. Many of us have adapted from the earlier species of humanity which acted according to ancient tribe wisdom and old spouse's tales and slept soundly. Now we are learning to screen out a lot of the junk and pick out the information we need. We have gained more freedom, but at a price.

This week's spasm of parental guilt does raise the question of the ideological packaging of some of our information, however. Panorama caused merry mayhem when it looked at the effect of both parents working full-time on children's school performance.

Some of the programme's critics saw it as evidence of the heavy-booted advance of a new social authoritarianism. This is a mistake. There is no doubt that a reactionary social agenda, reinforced by imports from America, is being pushed in certain newspapers, think tanks, churches and pressure groups. From them comes wave upon wave of moral panic about the disintegration of the family - chief culprit: the working mother. But to see the BBC as part of a sinister neo-conservative conspiracy is unconvincing: if we leave aside the competing claims about the academic research, the subject itself was an important one which Panorama was right to cover.

Most parents make a trade-off between the amount they earn and the amount of time they spend with their children. They don't need academic surveys to tell them that the time spent with their children is valuable, but they need to balance their own needs and the whole family's welfare. Many parents don't think they have got the balance quite right, but childcare and labour markets are inflexible things.

These are complex, guilt-ridden choices, but we are confident that most families are able to make them. Despite the alleged disintegration of the family, actual groups of people who are related to each other seem on the whole to be surviving rather well, and negotiating their way through the sea of information secure in their own judgements.

We are suspicious of calls for the return to the "traditional" family. We do not like the prescriptive and authoritarian rules, the intolerance of diversity, the moral absolutism, the subordination of women. But we recognise that the traditionalists do have some important things to say. They are right that parents ought to take their responsibilities for child- raising more seriously, but wrong to load the guilt on the working mother. They are right that marital breakdown is usually a bad experience for children, but wrong to try to legislate against it.

And we do not think that liberals need to cringe fearfully at the neo- conservative onslaught. The evidence suggests that the British hold strikingly liberal views about the family - among other things. The so-called Permissive Sixties might have been a time of liberation for a few, but for the vast majority, attitudes were restrictive. The new anti-abortion political party is fighting an uphill struggle against the steady shift towards more liberal views. Although everyone is concerned at the number of marriages that end in divorce, each divorce represents decisions taken by our fellow citizens and we tend as a society to respect their right to such decisions. The only qualification is that children have their views and should have them respected too, as they are in most families.

Life is complicated. Life is messy. But, in the end, most families are able to work out for themselves how much help the children need with their homework without William Oddie in the Daily Mail telling Mother to quit that job and stay at home - or David Blunkett's state police enforcing 90 minutes of homework a night.

So, let's have more information. Research findings, league tables, opinion polls, statistics, secret government documents. Let's keep our eagle eye on the bias infecting the channels through which we receive this stuff. But we can handle it: with every year that passes, we are becoming less gullible.

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