Leading Articles: Families change; so must attitudes

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The Independent Online
THE GULF between conventional images of family life and reality grows wider. This week, the case was reported of a single mother who left her two-year-old child alone all day so that she could work to support them both. Neither father, relatives nor a network of friends was available to offer alternatives. The nuclear family and its predecessor, the extended family, were nowhere to be seen. The world of The Waltons or even EastEnders bore little resemblance to the situation the mother faced. She acted out of desperation. Those empowered to uphold convention responded out of frustration and a lack of imagination. The judge, shocked at norms of behaviour turned upside down, jailed the mother, making matters worse.

This small episode highlights the increasing dangers of ignoring social changes with a momentum of their own. Government ministers may wish for fewer single parents because of the cost to the state. The Pope may lay down God's law on moral questions. Judges may condemn. But the nature of British family life is changing regardless. Those who stand Canute-like against the tide can offer little to children and parents trying to keep their heads above water.

The virtues of conventional families at their best have been a nurturing atmosphere in which children enjoy safety, financial security, the love of two parents and, if they are lucky, the care of relatives and friends. Many children still grow up in such fortunate circumstances: Britain has not suddenly become a nation of single parents and broken families. It is characterised by a hotch-potch of family models. However, the movement of people around the country means that when the nuclear family breaks down, the extended family is not there to pick up the pieces. This is a great shame of modern life, for, as Victor Hugo said: 'There are fathers who do not love their children, but there is no grandfather who does not adore his grandson.'

The state, and the wider community, must help many of those parents for whom the task of raising the next generation is overwhelming. This, in particular, means the 1.3 million lone-parent families. Most thought about how to make intervention effective involves helping mothers, who usually head these families. With proper childcare facilities, many more would lift their families out of poverty by going out to work. They would feel content in the knowledge that their children were safe and enjoying a stimulating atmosphere. British state-supported child care is, however, woefully inadequate, giving single mothers little alternative but to stay at home. They face the added problem that they lose benefits once they are earning, thus making it even harder to escape the poverty trap.

For women in one-parent families there are plenty of suggestions about how to improve their lot and that of their children. Only action is lacking. In contrast, there is a poverty of both thought and action about how to deal with absent fathers. They are written off as feckless individuals, forever juvenile, incapable of taking up adult roles as parents. The recently created Child Support Agency will chase them for maintenance payments to save on social security bills, but few people know how to make them responsible fathers. Unemployed and increasingly unemployable, some men seem to have been discarded by those who are quick to advocate support for other groups. Here exists a vacuum of thought. While feminism has generated a wealth of ideas about women in the modern world, there has been little equivalent thinking about the problems of men.

Facing up to the reality of today's diverse family models and offering concrete support is not simply about reforming social security. It will involve new notions of mutual support. Many elderly people, for example, have become as marginalised by social change as have single parents. The civilising influence of being in a family needs somehow to be developed among wider groups so that people feel a broad sense of responsibility to each other and will engage with those who are isolated. It is not enough just to call for plugging of the gaps in the system. What is lacking is a social ethos as binding as that of the traditional family, which for so many is a relic of the past.

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