This Wednesday the Scottish Government will be announcing its new National Parenting Strategy at the Parenting Across Scotland conference in Edinburgh. The policy is aimed at providing better to services to families of all shapes and sizes across the country, to ensure that young people get the best possible start in life. But what can it realistically hope to achieve, what does it need to tackle, and why should wider Scottish society invest in it?
As a queer person I probably know more childless people that average. Whilst Pope Benedict may be taking it a little far when he says that homosexuality threatens the future of the species, the fact is that lgbt people raise significantly fewer children than straight parents and many older gay men, who never had the option of adopting, have adopted a way of looking at the world that entirely elides parenthood. Of course, some straight people are unable to have children, or decide they don't want to, and recent academic work such as that by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy has problematised the assumption that every woman experiences maternal instincts. So I have quite often been asked "Why should I pay taxes to raise other people's kids? What's in it for me?" Like it or not, this is a key question when it comes to policy making.
The answer is not a difficult one but it can be difficult to sell. Children are an investment - not just for their parents but for society as a whole. Most of us will be old some day and age is a disabling process. If we want to retire or have care available for us when we are unable to be self-sufficient, we had better hope there's a new generation of capable people in the workforce, driving a strong economy. "Oh, but I have savings!" said one of my friends in response to this, misunderstanding the flexible nature of the value of money. This kind of attitude, together with the usual tendency to short termist thinking, present barriers that need to be overcome in putting forward a policy of this sort. They are particularly challenging for politicians on the left, who are frequently assumed to be driven by sentimental ideology rather than an understanding of economic issues.
And this is an economic issue. Parenting strategies have been put forward by successive governments. Some have been quite successful, but we have always struggled, as a nation, to raise more than 90% of our children out of poverty. This is because any policy that is going to be effective needs serious money behind it. Not only will this, over time, help us to build a stronger economy; it will also help us to reduce some specific financial burdens. That lost 10% (and more) of children doesn't just represent human suffering. It represents people who are more likely to face long term unemployment and more likely to end up in prison. If we don't invest now, we pay later.
That poverty is the most pressing problem for child welfare in Scotland is pretty much universally acknowledged. It's a problem that is getting worse as Westminster spending cuts disproportionately impact low income families, particularly where there are also disability issues (a key factor in child poverty). Distressing though this is, it would be folly to think that sufficient funds can be raised to tackle it at a stroke, especially in a political climate where there is considerable negativity around welfare; so what can be done right now to tackle some of the most serious difficulties whilst longer-term, larger-scale anti-poverty strategies develop?
Answering this question depends on cross-departmental working, and it's pleasing to see that this is something the Scottish government understands (though how well it will work in practice remains to be seen). Poor coordination, rivalry and duplication of work between departments is one of the biggest avoidable wastes of money in modern governmental structures all around the world, so it's good to see this kind of practice encouraged in any context. It's particularly important here because an effective parenting strategy must have the involvement of health, education and social security specialists at the very least. It must begin with high quality maternity care and helping prospective parents plan before a baby is born, but it mustn't end when children pass the point at which politicians want to kiss them and reach that where they risk being hugged by David Cameron. Children and their parents must be supported even when they're not cute, and we must acknowledge that it's often the least appealing kids - the most easily scapegoated ones - who need the most help.
It is also, very often, the least politically appealing families who are in need of help. This includes single mothers, frequently stigmatised and blamed for their predicament whilst little prejudice attaches itself to fathers who walk out. It includes young parents who often face extra financial difficulties and a steeper learning curve as well as social prejudice (a friend of mine in this situation had stones thrown at her when she was eight months pregnant). It includes alcoholics and drug addicts who need specialised support if they are to overcome their problems and successfully commit to parenthood. And it includes situations in which what is best for the child may be at odds with what is socially valued - supporting unconventional families or even helping troubled couples to separate.
I've heard many people say that they didn't feel ready to have kids until they were with someone whom they could never imagine wanting to leave. Personally, I'm inclined to think that it is advisable for couples to imagine splitting up before they have children. Research increasingly shows that children growing up after amicable divorces do better than children in homes where there is continual, miserable friction between their parents (even where that doesn't spill over into violence). A successful parenting strategy cannot afford to be based on social ideals - it must be based on lived realities, taking account of what works for individuals and, first and foremost, what can be done to make individual children feel happy and secure.
Happiness, despite being the focus of increasing scientific scrutiny, is still an undervalued aspect of life. It is important, in developing a strategy of this kind, to think not only of what children need but of what they want - to make room for play. That means preserving safe outdoor spaces, be they playgrounds or sports fields, in the face of financial pressure on councils to sell off land for development. It means providing social spaces for teenagers where they can spend time safely out of the family home, easing pressure on everybody. It means giving city kids access to the countryside and country kids access to the city. And it means funding specialist youth organisations that work with young people who find themselves marginalised.
The government has acknowledged that there is a lot of good work going on in these areas already and that the important thing is to draw it together, taking best practice examples from different groups and applying them, whether through government initiatives or the third sector, so that proper provision exists for children throughout Scotland. Sadly, many parents in marginalised groups are unaware of the help that's already out there, and this needs to be remedied. Others are afraid of any contact with helper organisations because they feel stigmatised to the point where they fear their children may be taken away. The government needs to send a clear signal that it is on the side of families and to develop communications strategies that inspire confidence - to show that t is there to help rather than to disapprove.
Unifying service provision must also involve an investment in true accessibility. Services must adapt to account for the needs of disabled parents and children, of those who don't speak much English and of those resident in hard-to-reach areas. This isn't just about intervening more specifically in individual cases - it's about building faith, on the part of parents, that services are truly focused on them, and thereby improving outreach and uptake more generally. To truly make this strategy work, the talking must continue once the initial consultation is over - the strategy must reflect the ongoing, changing needs of parents and children in a changing Scotland.