Leading Article: Parenthood and the British male

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THERE never was a golden age when British children basked in the sunshine of their parents' constant attention. In Victorian times, many children were nurtured not by parents, but in boarding schools, while their poorer contemporaries were plunged early into the workplace. The model nuclear family - father at work and mother at home - was a short-lived and largely middle- class phenomenon.

But there has been a recent and marked reduction in the time parents have for their children. The Americans call it a 'parenting deficit'. According to a pamphlet published today by Demos, an independent think-tank, the number of hours the average American parent spends with their children has nearly halved in the past 25 years. The same pattern can be observed in Britain: harassed couples trying to juggle two full-time jobs and family life. Single parents face even greater difficulties.

Children suffer as a result. Many are left alone for long periods or simply do not enjoy undivided parental attention. Microwaved meals may be reasonable substitutes for home-cooked fare, but television and videos cannot successfully replace guidance and support.

Some people may be tempted to blame women for the inadequacies of modern family life. Had mothers stayed at home, such difficulties might never have arisen. But it is not mothers who should be criticised. They have rightly taken their place in the workforce. It is men who are the problem. They have been unable to adapt quickly enough to fill the gaps left by their partners.

There are hopeful signs. Men are opting more for family sports and have cut back on leisure activities dominated by adult males. More fathers take their children to school. But the domestication of the British male is painfully slow. For this, feminism must take some blame. It has tended to denigrate domesticity, making it harder for women and men to gain self-esteem through parenting. Only now, after winning battles in the workplace, have women begun to assert the value of looking after children.

British men must recognise more quickly that business cannot go on as usual. To nurture their offspring properly, they will have to work more flexibly, even at a financial cost to themselves. The state and employers should support a culture in which men (and women) do not have to sacrifice children for career. For decades, feminists have been thinking imaginatively about the dual roles women play. It is time for fathers to break the silence on their own twin tasks - not least for the sake of the children.