I'm sorry, but your children are not your own private property

I've met people who are more scrupulous about their clothes, and far more faithful to their pets

David Aaronovitch
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:07

AS AN Englishman I spend quite a lot of my time lamenting the impact of change on my environment. People aren't as courteous as once they were, there are too many cars, and young women rest their boots on train seats. Such lamentation is an essential part of our culture. An overwhelmingly urban and exceptionally mobile nation, we nevertheless extol the virtues of idealised village life: stability, quiet, order and community. Scarcely a weekend passes without some journalist breathlessly informing her Sunday readers about her imminent exchange of the North London terrace for the fields and cots of East Anglia. Where the larks they sing melodious, and raspberries will be one and six a punnet.

I imagine that it was to this desire to recapture a lost time that William Hague was appealing last night, when he launched his campaign against the present, liberal divorce laws. Those in the first flush of marriage are often incredulous about what happens later, but what evidence, one wonders, does he have for assuming that the high rate of marital breakdown is caused by a lax divorce regime - rather than the other way about?

Not much, I would think. Those who initiate divorce proceedings are usually women, and it is mostly women who will suffer financially from the ending of a marriage. Research undertaken for the Lord Chancellor's Department, and published last month, indicates that alterations to the law might help in making divorce less acrimonious but has little impact on the decision to end a relationship. And nor does the prospect of being economically disadvantaged.

What is even more depressing, particularly for the Home Secretary, is the early evidence that pre-marital counselling is also ineffective in cutting the divorce rate. Few people had experienced any form of advice and - as the authors rather mordantly put it - "there is no evidence of unsatisfied demand". Intensive therapy might have assisted between 11 and 18 per cent of those who attended, but it should be remembered that only the most committed were likely to have lain on the couch in the first place.

You can argue the toss as to whether long-term economic or cultural factors have had the greatest effect upon divorce levels; for most of us the two are too closely entwined to be disentangled. Women's economic independence has run alongside a heightened expectation from women of what they should gain from marriage. In the late Nineties the ethos that seems increasingly to underpin marriage is a strange melange of romanticism and contractualism. Should one partner not provide the other partner with what he or she needs, then there is not only a moral entitlement to end the relationship, there is actually a social expectation that it should be ended.

And frankly, it wouldn't matter a toss should all marriages fetch up in divorce, if children weren't involved. But here, it seems to me, old Hague is right about the liberal consensus. We have been careless about how divorce and separation affect children. Take this little, emblematic sentence from a right-on woman writing in a trendy magazine. Here Irma Reilly (in LM magazine) explains divorce approvingly, in an article that does not mention children once: "People change - grow apart, get bored with each other, meet other people they like more. And so they leave one relationship to start another." Put like this, it's a wonder that any couple manages to make it all the way through to the adulthood of their kids. I have met people who are more scrupulous about their clothes, and far more faithful to their pets.

It isn't surprising then, that many - especially those who have been divorced - have deluded themselves into believing that divorce doesn't really harm children. Children are "resilient", and, in any case, conveniently better off when loveless and conflictual relationships between their parents are brought to an end. But over the past half decade the evidence has steadily piled up, indicating that the impact upon kids of parental breakup is often devastating, and usually damaging. Looked at from the child's point of view it is well worth mummies and daddies going that extra mile to accommodate one another, even to the extent of living with occasional adulteries or periods of abstinence.

But the child's point of view is not one we particularly want to hear. Perhaps this is because we are all children now, no matter how old we are. As the NSPCC "Out of Sight" campaign launched today reveals, the highest rates of homicide in this country are suffered by the under fours. Forty per cent of all killings are of infants under the age of one. Of their killers half are male "carers", a third are mothers and 14 per cent are other carers acting in loco parentis (we should bear in mind here the vastly greater amount of time that mothers spend with small children). We defer to them, spoil them and - if that doesn't keep the little sods quiet - we kill them. And this misery, almost all of it, goes on in the privacy of the home.

Parents, of course, know what's best for their children. This is the era of the privatisation of childhood. It is also an age in which some would-be parents really do see their children as fashion accessories. Still others view them as bolsters to their failing egos, as comfort zones for dead-ended, dumpy teenage girls to surround themselves with. In this respect it is hard not to sympathise with teachers, confronted each day by failing parents who will brook no correction or advice. The political right believes that the state has minimal business interfering in child- rearing (the "nanny-state" is, after all, a term of abuse), the left argues that - when it comes to single mothers - they should be given the money, but that no one should tell them what to do. For all the talk of overweening, Stalinist social workers, the fact is that the presumption made by social services is usually to leave a child with its natural mother.

This week has also seen further discussion of the Bulger case, with the successful appeal by the solicitor of the two young killers to the European Court. The anticipated row is now building up. But the Bulger case was not singular just because two children killed another. That had happened before. It was dreadful because all those adults could and should have stopped Jamie's progression to his execution, and they failed to. One child being dragged, screaming by two others was, essentially, a private business.

This is my lament then, my bit of nostalgia. I want us to start looking out for each other's children. I want us to risk the charge of nosiness and interference that might result from our intervention.

I want children to be seen as a social concern, and not as the private property of their parents. I want babushkas to stop us in the street and tell us when we haven't wrapped the baby up warmly enough. Other people's sex lives are none of our business. Other people's children are.

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