Last week I met a friend whose child has just started at a top university. It would, I knew, be a big topic of conversation: and it was. For, oh, half an hour I heard about the child's magnificent grades, the friends he was making, the work he was settling into, the fun he was having. My friend's face lit up with parental pride, and rightly so. But in fact he's not the boy's parent at all. He's not even his stepfather: he's in a relationship with the boy's father, and has been a big part of his life for some years. But there's nothing formal, or standardised, or traditional about his set-up.
Conventional families have been in the news lately, thanks to Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions minister. He made a speech in which he lamented the fact that, by the age of 15, almost half of all teenagers no longer share a house with both parents. In the future, he said, the proportion of children who live with the same two parents from birth will be seen as a yardstick for how far government policies on social justice are succeeding.
Stable, loving families matter. That was part of Duncan Smith's message – and he's right. There's plenty of research to show that children who are raised in loving, stable families do better, educationally and socially, in the long term. But 45 per cent of the nation's families, as Duncan Smith's speech told us – are not part of conventional, two-parent households. And while it's one thing to hold up the gold standard and remind us how things "should" be done, it's quite another to decide that you're going to reverse what has been a colossal shift in conventions and expectations around long-term relationships over the past few decades.
Even if Duncan Smith and this government could alter the decisions parents take about how they want to live, what is the point of deriding (as they must feel they are) families that are less than "perfect"? Far better to empower those parents doing their best to raise children across a divided relationship than to pile on the guilt and imply that, because they don't fit a stereotype, they're somehow failing.
The truth, as we all know, is that every family has strengths and weaknesses – and there are plenty of families that look conventionally ideal, but are in fact struggling desperately below the surface. Meanwhile there are others, like that of my friend, that look exotic and colourful, that meet none of Iain Duncan Smith's cherished conventions, but which manage to raise children who appear to be every bit as balanced, rounded and successful as those from traditional, husband and wife, two-parent, one male/one female families.
What matters most isn't what actually happens in a family, it's how much whatever happens affects the children's lives and how much support there is for the young people from the older and (it is to be hoped) wiser adults. In another age, most families looked like the ones Iain Duncan Smith described. In our own age, families can and do look very different. But it's helping them through the minefield that is raising their kids, rather than ticking off the pieces of kit you think they have to carry with them, that matters the most.
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