Rule 18: be sceptical about ‘bad childhood’ reports

With so many shrill studies telling us that parents are selfish and uncaring, is it any wonder some children might feel a little insecure?

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

As yet another report blames parents for the miserable state of childhood in the UK, it would be easy for us to get a bit spooked. From UNICEF telling us two years ago that British children have the lowest standard of wellbeing in the world (1), to last week’s Good Childhood Inquiry, produced by the Church of England Children’s Society, claiming that ‘excessive individualism’ has resulted in a generation of parents who are too selfish to raise happy children (2), there seems to be a huge market for ‘research’ telling us what rubbish parents we are.

But let’s be clear – it is the ‘research’ that is rubbish, not parents. And if we are concerned about our children’s happiness and wellbeing, the first thing we have to do is to ignore all this stuff, and get on with raising our families in the best way we can.

The Good Childhood Inquiry was a major endeavour, which was conducted over two years and involved talking to children, adults and professionals. Yet despite the significant amounts of money and effort that have gone into this report, its findings are flimsy and its conclusions largely based on prejudice. Critics such as Helene Guldberg on spiked (3), and Daniel Finkelstein in The Times (4), have offered some astute arguments about some of the many things that are wrong with this report.

But the Good Childhood Inquiry is so wide-ranging, and there are so many things wrong with it, that I will have to restrict myself to one of its more objectionable claims: that a culture of ‘excessive individualism’ is leading to family breakdown, brought about by selfish parents who do not care if they make their children unhappy.

Noting that ‘most women now work outside the home’, the Good Childhood Inquiry argues:

‘Women’s new economic independence has made women much less dependent on their male partner, as has the advent of the welfare state. These factors have contributed to the rise of family break-up. As a result of increased break-up, a third of British 16-year-olds now live apart from their biological father. A child’s performance at secondary school, self-esteem and wellbeing as an adult are linked especially to the father’s input. Children, whose parents separate are 50 per cent more likely to fail at school, suffer behavioural difficulties, anxiety or depression.’ (5)

Even coming from the Church of England, this is an extraordinarily reactionary set of statements. It is rare these days to hear people argue that things were better when women were trapped in abusive or miserable marriages simply because they lacked the economic wherewithal to leave. The inquiry kindly notes that parents ‘should not stay together if the level of conflict between them is very bad’ – despite the apparently grisly consequences of separation for their children – but glibly instructs us that ‘people who bring a child into the world should have a long-term commitment to each other and should aim to live harmoniously with each other’ (6).

So we not only have an obligation, as parents, to stay with our partners forever ‘for the sake of the children’ – we also have an obligation to stay happy. Which begs the question, what on Earth does the Church of England think that people want out of a relationship in the first place?

The assumption behind these findings, which set the tone for much of the media debate about the report, is that men and women today break up with each other on the merest whim, shopping for intimate relationships as they do for shoes, without a thought about the impact of their actions upon their children. Of course, we have all heard stories about people who have behaved like that, as well as reading stories about people who fantasise about behaving like that. And yes, we do live in a self-absorbed culture that is troubled by the idea of long-term commitment; we do struggle with the idea that we have to ‘give up our lives’ when we have children. But if we look at the way that people actually think and live in relation to children, the idea that families in general are beset by excessive, selfish individualism seems preposterous.

Compared to the dubious research that informs much of the Good Childhood Inquiry, the respected British Social Attitudes survey of 2008 sheds some light on this question. (7) In their report on ‘tradition and change in modern relationships’, Simon Duncan and Miranda Phillips noted that there is a ‘glaring problem’ with the individualisation theory of modern family life, which emphasises the self-centred pursuit of personal relationships; and that problem is ‘how far it exists in reality is largely uncertain’. Noting that ‘the individualisation theorists themselves are notorious for asserting their almost millenarian scenarios on the basis of sketchy evidence’, the authors argue that ‘subsequent research in Britain has shown that other family forms can provide everyday alternatives to the married couple’.

In other words: while some families live in a different structure to the past, in the sense of not being married or living with step-children, that does not mean that the quality of the relationships between parents and children has become something different to classical ‘family life’. The changing form of the family certainly does not mean that parents have become highly individualised hedonists, aggressively seeking their own pleasure at the expense of their children.

For example, when asked whether ‘Married couples make better parents than unmarried ones’, 40 per cent of respondents to the British Social Attitudes survey disagreed, compared with 28 per cent who agreed. When asked whether divorce should be harder if children are under 16, 30 per cent agreed, 38 per cent disagreed, and 26 per cent were equivocal. The vast majority of respondents (78 per cent) agreed that: ‘It is not divorce that harms children, but conflict between their parents.’ All of these responses indicate a wide acceptance of different family forms.

Yet when it comes to ideas about how people do and should view their responsibilities to their children, there is no sense of taking this lightly. Forty-two per cent of respondents agreed with the statement: ‘The relationship between a parent and their child is stronger than the relationship between any couple.’ And 75 per cent of respondents thought that ‘many couples stay in unhappy relationships because of money or children’. As Duncan and Phillips note: ‘Clearly… most people see the world of families and relationships as potentially involving severe structural constraints to personal choice. This is hardly a case of “choosing one’s own biography”, as individualisation theory would have it.’

There is no doubt that the form of the modern family has changed – although the extent of these changes is often overstated. Even the Good Childhood Inquiry, for all its emphasis on the problem of single parents, found that 76 per cent of its child respondents lived in a traditional set-up, with ‘Mum and Dad’. What is important, though, is to distinguish between the way people view their relationship to social institutions, such as marriage, and the way they view their commitment to their families. People are well aware that families can involve ‘severe structural constraints to personal choice’, yet they still choose to embark on family life.

As for putting their children first: the fact that a significant proportion of people privilege the parent-child bond over the bond between a couple indicates the degree to which the focus on children has become, if anything, too great. As Ulrich Beck and other individualisation theorists have argued, in a culture of uncertain, fluid relationships, the absolute and unconditional love one has for one’s child can seem like the safest option, the only non-negotiable element in one’s personal relationships. In my view, this speaks to a problem, in the sense that it reveals an under-confidence about the ability to find life-long love with another adult, and implies that love within a family is somehow divisible – that it is even possible to answer the question, ‘Who do you love best, your husband or your child?’. But this finding does rather knock on the head the idea that parents privilege finding the perfect new partner over their child’s wellbeing.

Ultimately, the problem with the Church of England’s ‘excessive individualism’ complaint is the extent to which it assumes a breakdown in the emotional relationship within families. It assumes that parents make free choices, outside of the context of real life – so working mothers are acting selfishly, as are couples who have taken the hard decision to divorce, as are single parents who do not retain contact with the child’s father. There is no sense of the financial and social pressures that are brought to bear upon families, which help to define the choices that they make. After all, don’t most people aspire to live ‘harmoniously’ with their life partner as they raise their family? And does it not occur to the authors of the Good Childhood Inquiry that there might be more to this than a mere act of will?

The fact is that family life is, and always has been, messy and imperfect. People make choices, of course they do, but these are choices that are generally grounded in what the family as a whole wants and needs. Are working mothers selfish for contributing to the family finances while they boost their sense of personal identity? Is a mother (or a father) a better person for putting up with downright unreasonable behaviour from their partner in the interests of ‘harmonious’ living? To think that the interests of a family as a whole can be divided into parents’ interests versus children’s interests, or individuals’ interests against each other, is a fundamental misreading of what makes family life distinct from the life of an individual.

One can argue, as the Children’s Society has done, that children do not like it when their parents split up, and that they may suffer as a result. But the cause of these children will not be served by pretending that parents get divorced on a whim, or that cajoling deeply unhappy couples to stay together for the sake of their children will result in a happy outcome for anybody. We have to trust that parents make decisions for the good of their families – and even if we think those decisions are wrong, it is not the business of the church, the state or the chatterati to decide how people should live their personal lives.

The standard Hollywood line spoken by parents to their children when they get divorced is, ‘This doesn’t mean we love you any less’. Now we have the Church of England transmitting the message, ‘Your parents don’t love you enough to stay together, and they have only their own interests at heart’. Constantly bombarded with messages like these, no wonder kids are worried.

Jennie Bristow runs the website, Parents With Attitude and is co-author of Licensed to Hug: How Child Protection Policies Are Poisoning the Relationship Between the Generations and Damaging the Voluntary Sector published by Civitas, 2008. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Read on:

A guide to subversive parenting

(1) UNICEF report on childhood in industrialised countries, UNICEF UK News, 14 February 2007

(2) The Good Childhood Inquiry, Children’s Society, February 2008

(3) The mother of all interventions, by Helene Guldberg

(4) Happily, children don’t have such a hard time, The Times (London), 4 February 2009

(5) The Good Childhood Inquiry, Children’s Society, February 2008

(6) Press release: The Good Childhood Inquiry. The Children’s Society, 2 February 2008

(7) Alison Park et al (eds). British Social Attitudes: The 24th Report SAGE publications / NatCen, 2008

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Topics Politics


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