Tuesday, 7 June 2011

A Friend of the Family

The recently released Bailey Review into the commercialisation and sexualisation of children places a lot of emphasis on the need to make society 'more family friendly'. Every government likes to proclaim that it has family friendly policies – it is, after all, a pretty easy way to sound like the good guys – but what does it actually mean? Just what kind of family are they talking about?

Of the UK's approximately seventeen million families, just twelve million are headed by married couples. Around two and a half million are headed by couples who are cohabiting without marriage or civil partnership, and this figure is steadily growing as a proportion of the whole. There are just over two million single mother families and a mere hundred thousand single father families; neither of these groups has grown or declined much in recent years, although if you read the tabloids you may well have been under the impression that they're an epidemic. The evidence suggests that most single parents are in relationships at the point when their children are born. Only around ten percent of them are under twenty five, so the irresponsible teenager stereotype is misleading too. Oh, and over half of single parents work, though they are significantly more likely than those in two parent families to be living below the poverty line.

Of course, this only gives us a rough idea of what Britain's families really look like, because families aren't limited to the nuclear group. There are certainly quite a few polyamorous families out there, with more than two adults providing for children, but we don't have any firm details on this because the people running the National Census decided to disregard all data concerning multiple partner groups and instead assign each individual thus described a single partner, on the basis that they probably made an error when describing themselves (how they can arrive at this conclusion in the absence of other quantitative data on polyamorous households is unclear). There are also many families which have fractured and reformed so that children frequently travel between their birth parents' homes and are also looked after by step parents. And then there's co-parenting, where two unrelated adults who are not romantically involved share a home in order to raise their children together – many women find this a practical way to work around problems they would otherwise face in finding childcare to enable them to work.

Add to this the extended family. Modern UK society is unusual in its notional adherence to the parents-and-children-only model. In most societies today and throughout history, grandparents, aunts and uncles and often close friends of the family have played important roles in raising children – not just providing childcare, but helping more generally with education and socialisation. In fact there are still a great many families in the UK that function like this, they just tend to be under the political radar. There are also many complex care situations in which families may include elderly, ill or disabled adult dependants, some of whom also help to look after children.

Given this complex picture, it should be pretty clear that one-size-fits-all approaches to family friendliness are not going to work. The UK has a sad history of prioritising some family types at the expense of others and of using crude financial levers to try and force people into that 'standard' model (though David Cameron's much-vaunted plan to create a new tax allowance for married couples seems to have been consigned to the back burner). Single mothers are made scapegoats for everything from male violence to the struggling economy, generally with no substantiating evidence, whilst relatively little attention is paid to the men whose desertion has left many of them in that situation in the first place, even where non-payment of parental contributions is commonplace. Single fathers, meanwhile, tend to lose out because they are 'invisible' when policy is being developed.

To complicate things further, families include people who face different kinds of social exclusion. There are three and a half million children in the UK living below the poverty line – a statistic which becomes more worrying when one realises how many of them were born to parents who grew up in the same circumstances. To families like this, the notion that their primary concerns should include the appearance of the kids' underwear must seem ludicrous to say the least. One in six kids in this situation considers suicide. Shouldn't we be more concerned about that? Or about the kids who feel suicidal because they experience racist, homophobic or transphobic bullying whilst Cameron's government increasingly deregulates the schools that ought to be protecting them?

Moral panics have a nasty way of making things harder for kids like these. Public fear of paedophiles has made it harder for many kids to access sport, hobby groups or outdoor play. This is despite the fact that most child molestation occurs within the family unit or its immediate social circle. Denying kids contact with other adults makes it harder for them to find people they can confide in when things are wrong at home. It also means that a kid who is worried about developing homosexual feelings, for instance, will find it harder to ask a neutral adult for advice. Responsible advice is hard to find online if parents have installed content-blocking software. So such young people are often left more vulnerable, not less so, like those prevented by the same software from accessing safer sex advice. If Nadine Dorries and her allies succeed in placing the focus of school sex education on abstinence we can expect rates of sexually transmitted infections to soar as they have where similar approaches have been taken in the US. Protecting children is not always as obvious a process as it might first seem.

It's also an emotive business. The phrase 'family friendly' is designed to appeal to the emotions, but often it does so at the expense of good sense. People who care passionately about protecting children often believe that qualifies them to act on instinct. It doesn't. To make good policy which has the effects intended, it is necessary to consider the evidence. Fortunately there is a good quantity of this, though little in the Bailey Review, which amounts to little more than a collection of opinions.

There is one other important question to ask here, and that's whether it is appropriate to place so much extra emphasis on parental input when it comes to developing policies that affect children. Parents generally do know their own children better than anyone else does, but that doesn't make them experts on children in general. And the welfare of children is not solely their concern. It's not just that non-parents may also want to see children do well, it's that the whole of society depends on how children are raised. Everybody has to live with problems like youth violence and everybody will ultimately depend on the skills and hard word of those who are now children to sustain the economy when they grow too old to work themselves. Children are a social investment, not just a familial one.

The hard truth of the matter is, most genuine ways to improve the lives of families and children across the board require money – more money than successive governments have been willing to invest. Until they are ready to put that money where their mouths are, they should be wary of announcing that they're family friendly. Baby-kissing is out of fashion on the campaign trail (I am still uncertain as to why, in the internet age, we don't see more politicians posing with kittens). It is time we also put its rhetorical cousin to bed.

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