Why do we subcontract family life?

Some parents seem keen to offload their children

Alison Shepherd
Saturday 07 September 2013 19:29
Brave new world – or merely bad old double-think?
Brave new world – or merely bad old double-think?

How daft must the ghost of Aldous Huxley feel now. Poor old Huxley would have spent months if not years of his life, dreaming up the foundation of his brave new world. But his vision of a totalitarian authority controlling the psyches of children via hatcheries and hypnopedia was all in vain. We Brits are quite capable of exerting that mass control all by ourselves.

What need we of sleep-learning and parentless care to mould the minds our young when we appear to be slowly but inexorably transferring that right, let alone responsibility, to the state of our own volition? A recent survey suggests that families spend on average only half an hour together on weekdays. This rises to two hours on Saturdays and Sundays. A grand total of eight hours a week, and most of that, according to the Virgin Holidays poll, is spent sitting in silence in front of the television.

That might sound like plenty. I know there are times in my family life when eight hours seemed like eight too many, but to add a little perspective, other recent surveys have shown that women spend more than three hours a week standing in front of a mirror applying make-up, while the average game-player, who also happens to have one child, sits in front of a console, fighting the Second World War again for 12 hours a week.

So, television apart, how are parents using those precious eight hours? Certainly not passing on any useful life skills, judging by the 1,000 or so surveyed last weekend by John Lewis, that most paternal of retailers. It discovered that although the majority believed it was important children should be taught, for example, how to sew on a button, only 15 per cent had bothered to sit down with their child and show them how. Cooking, baking and organisational skills were similarly neglected.

And who do parents think should be teaching these skills? Well, schools would seem the best bet but, of course, they have their work cut out forcing children through the education machine at speed while hitting all their narrow targets.

To bridge this gap, John Lewis, in association with the National Literacy Trust, the Design Museum and the designer Wayne Hemingway, has devised Bringing Skills to Life, a curriculum-based programme for primary school children. The teachers and seven-year-olds taking part in the pilot programmes have, by all accounts, loved the mix of developing literacy and creativity while teaching and learning practical skills. But surely, in a fully functioning society, there should be no need for a retailer, no matter how altruistic, to be going into state schools to give children the experiences that rightfully belong in the home.

There is a bizarre double-think going on. Parents seem happy to entrust the basic survival skill of cooking to teachers, yet don't trust them enough with the academic side of their role, with one in four apparently paying tutors to supplement their offspring's education. It makes perfect sense: time is tight, so why not subcontract the kids for another couple of hours a week, preferably at a time when parents are at home – in the evenings or at weekends. Let's really make family time precious – in the way of rare metals.

And as not every family can afford to spend an additional £22 an hour on top of the tax they have already paid to educate their children, we are in danger of creating a schism that Huxley foresaw in his Alpha and Epsilon castes. The rich become the well educated, while the vast majority become drones to service the machine. Unfortunately, nobody has yet invented soma. Until they do alcohol, drugs, football and The X Factor will just have to do.

"O brave new world, That has such people in't..."

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