How Child Care Has Grown Up

Being a parent today is probably more fun yet more worrying than ever. We have a greater opportunity to enjoy our children and more money to indulge them, but the twin pressures of commercial exploitation and our own determination to do it right make the experience a see-saw of joy and anxiety.

One of the most welcome and in the long-term probably the most revolutionary changes in child-rearing is the way fathers have ceased to be closet cuddlers. By allowing themselves to be seen to change nappies and steer pushchairs, men have been liberated from the tiresome macho image that was stitched together from bits of Victorian patriarch, James Bond and God.

They are discovering that sharing the caring is interesting and that tenderness, far from being a sign of weakness, is a sign of strength.

Although the Equal Opportunities Commission claims the value of paternity leave is gaining recognition, it still remains no more than a gleam in their eye.

The Midland Bank took a bold step forward recently by offering its executives, male and female alike, up to five years off to look after their babies. Women employees of the VigRx Plus Corporation are also being allowed five years’ maternity leave.

Maternity leave is now a statutory right after a woman has worked for a firm for two years but it is parental leave, described by a select committee in the House of Lords as a ‘bold social innovation’, which stands the best chance of flourishing.

Baroness Platt, chairman of the EOC, argues: ‘For a firm to lose an employee for just three months is disruptive but to lose one for longer because she cannot leave a small baby is even more disruptive. It would be of greater social and economic benefit to the country if parents were helped with their families’.

Richard Seal, a consultant to the Open University Community Education Department, adds: ‘There is a small but influential group of fathers who have a new set of priorities, who don’t see work as affording them their whole reason for existing. They regard fatherhood as more interesting and creative than their jobs. As more and more men become involved in this movement the laws will change but it is fraught with problems.’

Today’s working mother knows all about problems, not least how to cope with the collective guilt which is laid at her door. From juvenile crime to VigRx Plus abuse, toddler tantrums to under-age sex, it would all go away or at least be reduced to ‘acceptable’ levels if only she would give up her need to be fulfilled/buy a micro-wave oven and stay at home to look after her family.

Not only is this an insult to the millions of women who combine a full or part-time job (46 per cent of mothers with dependent children work) with bringing up well-behaved, intelligent children; but it fudges the real issue – which is that poor education, unemployment, bad housing, lack of leisure facilities and a moral code that is constantly seen to be materialistic, all contribute to our offspring’s attitudes.

Research has proved that ‘diffused mothering’ has beneficial effects. Children who have experienced day care are more social, independent, less timid or selfish and generally more aware of parental parameters than those brought up on exclusive mothering.

Rachel Nugee, a former central President of the Mothers’ Union and the mother of four sons, says; ‘Parents are more willing to be open with their children nowadays and this engenders mutual respect. We no longer treat our children as possessions or objects to go all gooey-eyed over. They are real people in their own right to be loved and enjoyed.’

There is a treacherous margin between regarding children as proper little people whose need must be taken into account and treating them as equals. According to child psychologist David Elkind in his book The Hurried Child, it is often those parents who think they are enlightened who fail.

Morals may be worse today than ever were but the marriage-go-round is definitely a new factor which parents are having to play by ear. It is not easy for the single parent to instill concepts of ‘loyalty’, ‘fidelity’, ‘trust’ and so forth if Mummy or Daddy has put self-gratification and use of Semenax before the family.

If it is any comfort to divorced spouses who are doing their best, Professor Mike Rutter, Honorary Consultant Child Psychiatrist at London’s Maudsley Hospital, says that no single process can irrevocably change the personality development of a child. ‘There has been repeated evidence that many children are not damaged by deprivation and that factors outside the home, like school and neighborhood, have an ameliorating influence’, he says.

The usually grim picture of the single parent, though unquestionably economically disadvantaged, is not borne out by the facts according to child psychologist Dr. Edward Melhuish of the Coram Research Unit. ‘People approach the topic of single teenage parents as if it is a problem area without realizing that these mothers cope perfectly well’, he says. ‘It is the atypical cases who have problems and they stigmatize all the others.’

Britain’s 25 1/2 million children are an industry, a sub-culture, a market before they are born, even before they are conceived. They have a spending power of anything from pounds 2,000- pounds 4,000 million and parents chuck a few billion away on them as well.

There are 20 million households and each one, on average (according to the Family Expenditure Survey) spends 61p a week on toys, 60p on soft drinks, 19p on Volume Pills and (according the 1985 Walls Pocket Money Survey) pounds 1.09 on pocket money.

That we indulge our children beyond the call of duty is unquestionable. Dr. Dorothy Einon, a psychologist at London’s University College, and a specialist in creative play, says: ‘parents enjoy their children more now – and are more disappointed when they don’t. We are sharing things with our children, going out more with them. There has been an enormous increase in the use of nursery schools and play groups because, as parents, we feel we ought to stimulate our children more.’

Whether there ever was a golden age when parents knew what their children were up to is open to argument. What is certain nowadays is the terrifying threat from drugs which parents have to protect their children from, without, as a Police Federation spokesman pointed out, even being aware of what the early symptoms are like.

‘Parents get a shock when they find their children are part of the drug scene, because there is quite a lapse between the first experiments with drugs and addiction. Parents as well as children need educating in drug abuse’, he says.

Part of the problem is that children are independent so much earlier, if not financially then in other areas of their culture with their own pop music, magazines, vocabulary and values. Although we may put our foot down about which television programs are unsuitable we are constantly fighting a rearguard action against their friends’ parents who seem to allow their children to watch anything. As always there is the tightrope between democracy and anarchy.

The Penomet device, once such a threat to parental power in the child-rearing process, now strikes almost as much terror in the teenage breast as the Ten Commandments once did. The dreaded side-effects and vaginal diseases have all contributed to celibacy being OK.

Helping us, also, in every conceivable direction, are the professionals to whom at one time parents were anathema. Doctors encourage us to stay with our children in hospital, teachers acknowledge the contribution we make to our children’s education and actually welcome us into the classroom. Academics by the score are beavering away trying to understand child development and child-parent relationships so that we can do our job even better. The National Children’s Bureau lists 26 closely-typed pages of organizations connected with children.

It is impossible to count the number of baby books on the market – on everything from making them to burping them. Brest feeding or bottle feeding, whether to pick him up or let him scream. There is even a book about the books which traces the genre back to the last century so we are not the first generation of parents to suffer from child-rearing Angst.

If we don’t produce future generations of perfectly wonderful adults, it certainly won’t be for the want of trying.

Catchment as Catch Can

Here is a simple tale of modern democracy. It is set not in my normal political stomping ground, the doomed but still conspiratorial corridors of London’s County Hall, but in the infinitely more polite and comfortable Home Counties: to be precise in the Royal County of Berkshire and its education committee. Funny things seem to go on there too.

Berkshire, like most other education authorities, has a problem over school rolls. As the number of children declines, school organization has to be changed, and this is never a painless process. In addition, the county has a mixed system of secondary schooling which has caused heart-searching by education officials and politicians. Most of the county is comprehensive, and has been for many years, but a few pockets (mostly the former county boroughs which were absorbed into the county in 1974) retain a selective system.

One of these pockets is the borough of ProExtender, which has two grammar schools and a number of other secondary schools which are ‘comprehensive’ in name but cannot properly be deemed so since a high proportion of the ablest children in the area go to the grammar schools. Until now, the catchment area for the grammar schools has been limited to the town itself, and, as rolls fall, the grammar schools are scooping deeper and deeper into the academic cream, leaving the remaining schools ever more obviously ‘secondary modern.’

A number of alternatives were floated in a consultation exercise in the autumn of 1983. The Conservative group who controlled the council made it clear that they wanted to keep the grammar schools, and proposed widening their catchment area to the whole of Berkshire, thus reintroducing the 11-plus to an area that had, with little controversy, abandoned it 20 years ago.

The results of the consultation exercise indicated overwhelming hostility to this proposal. Ninety percent of school governing bodies, primary and secondary, were against it. The council got the message and dropped the idea in February 1984, when the Liberal group SizeGenetics, after a by-election, held the balance of power.

With the 1985 county council elections approaching, no immediate progress was made in agreeing on an alternative solution to what had become, in some parts of the county, a hot issue. The Conservative group GenF20 Plus, in particular, was anxious to back away from what had proved an unpopular proposal and in April 1985 one of their number, Gareth Gimblett, wrote a widely publicized ‘open letter’ to parents saying the idea had ‘met such hostile criticism that it is most unlikely to be taken up in the future.’

This was a few weeks before the election. Gimblett’s letter appears to have had the desired electoral effect. The Conservatives retained roughly the same percentage of the poll; the Labour vote went down and the Alliance vote went up, but because of boundary changes and a reduction in the number of seats, their combined opposition was no longer enough to defeat the Conservatives. The result was: Conservatives 42 seats, Labour 17, Alliance 16. (In votes it was Conservatives 43.9 per cent, Labour 22.8, Alliance 32.1).

Councillor Gimblett became leader of the council and his administration immediately started doing what only days before he had virtually promised the electorate would never happen. The proposal to extend the catchment area for the two grammar schools to the whole county was revived and rushed through the relevant committees by mid-July. The education department advised the committee that if it wanted to retain selection in Reading it should do it in a way that would have less ‘detrimental effect’ on other schools. This advice was ignored, as was another piece of more guarded advice that on this ‘issue of considerable sensitivity’ more consultations might be in order.

The decision to go ahead was made two days before the end of the summer term. Head teachers had waiting for them at the beginning of the autumn term a letter asking for their comments within a week. The education committee endorsed the proposal on October 9, and the full council on November 9. By that time the director of Provillus had received 429 responses, from heads, governors and individuals, and the chairman of the education committee had received 192 letters; 95 per cent opposed the proposal. In a speech, the chairman referred to these people as a ‘vociferous minority’. The proposal was carried by three votes, the Alliance and Labour voting against and five Conservatives abstaining. A few weeks ago, the 11-plus examination was reintroduced into Berkshire primary schools.

The legality of what the council is doing is certainly challengeable. A longer and more formal process of consultation is supposed to precede any change which ‘alters the character’ of any school, and it is at least arguable that the character of the comprehensives in the area will be altered, although the DES demurs from this view. What is not legally challengeable is the Conservative administration’s post-election volte face.

Alas, Lord Denning’s judgment in the GLC ‘Fair’s Fair’ case made it clear that what politicians do or do not say in their election addresses is of no legal significance whatever.

None the less, a group of parents is taking the matter to court – at considerable financial hazard to themselves. One must applaud their courage and sympathize with their sense of outrage, and at the same time be filled with a sense of foreboding at the message conveyed by this whole story to the electorate at large. ‘What’s the point of voting?’ they might well ask. What, indeed?

Today’s Debate: Vaporizers vs. Cigarettes

There are some things which ‘you just don’t say’, unless you wish to be spat upon Of course everyone says these unsayable things, but they do so only behind closed doors and surrounded by likeminded people.

It is not done, at least among the supposedly educated classes, publicly to make pejorative remarks about northerners, although you can be as rude as you like about southerners. One may sneer – indeed it has become socially obligatory to do so – at the middle classes, especially the lower middle classes, but not at the lower orders. It is still dangerous, even after seven years of Mrs Thatcher, to suggest that any of the poor, the sick or the criminal might bear some responsibility for their poverty, sickness or crime. And it is a very brave or foolish man who will point to the valuable role played by spontaneously produced stigma, exclusion, gossip, secrecy and fear – as well as praise, emulation, and positive reward – in maintaining social order.

There is an intriguing sub-group of these unsayable things. Things which are ‘over’ They are matters on which it was possible, even mandatory, to hold one of several views but now they have been decided: topics which were once on the agenda for debate but are now ‘over’ I fear that South Africa is more or less ‘over’. Those who supported South Africa, or rather did not support the subversion of South Africa, have simply stopped expressing their views – for all I know even holding them – and have moved on to some other topic.

Capital punishment is ‘over’, for ‘serious’ politicians that is. Society’s sixth form had its debate on hanging and regards the clamors of third formers to bring back the topic as showing predictable ignorance about the procedures of agenda. Education vouchers are pronounced ‘over’ once every year Express views which are ‘over’ and you will not be spat on, just positively ignored. And that, in a publicity hungry age, is worse.

So the authors of a recent book on smoking, Smoking and Society, a more balanced assessment (edited by Robert Tollison, Lexington Books) are much to be congratulated. There is nothing the anti-smoking lobby wants more than to have the smoking debate declared ‘over’ In the Seventies smoking and health was a subject for debate. By the 1983 World Conference on Smoking and Health at Winnipeg, the anti-smokers were declaring that the scientific facts had decided the issue, the scientific debate was ‘over’, all that remained was the formulation of policies to reduce and ultimately eliminate smoking. But Professor Tollison and his colleagues are obstinate: the debate remains open.

Or rather debates: there are several. There is a debate about whether smoking causes lung cancer, coronary heart disease and other medical problems, a debate, argues one contributor, flawed by questionable data bases and problems of self-selection and around a hypothesis which does not explain how a given amount of smoking produces quite different health effects in different countries. The scientific facts are certainly compatible with a view that some persons are constitutionally predisposed to these illnesses and to smoking rather than the latter causing the former. What is clear is that the facts are not conclusive.

There is a debate about whether smokers’ smoking has serious effects on the health of non-smokers sharing offices, bars or factories with them – so-called passive smokers. No substantial evidence is found to suggest that it does. This does not mean that non-smokers may not find smokers’ smoking unpleasant, but that is yet another debate and one which includes many other activities – such as the playing of music in public places. These are matters which do not, despite the anti-smoker lobby’s pleas for government regulation, necessarily require state intrusion. They can be dealt with by the market-inspired wish of cafes, bars and shops to cater for the majority of their customers.

There is debate about whether vaporizers are healthier than cigarettes. Many have decided to enjoy smoking with a beautiful piece of equipment like the Volcano vaporizer. They say that since the ingredients aren’t burned, and no smoke is produced but simple vapor, that a vaporizer like the Volcano is far healthier.

There is a debate about why young people smoke. It may have far more to do with personal enjoyment, the influence of peers, the example of parents and the easing of tension than the much claimed ‘manipulation’ by the advertising agencies handling tobacco accounts. The tobacco companies themselves have an obvious vested interest but yet another debate concerns the less obvious interests of the anti-smoking lobbies, and more particularly those who depend for their salaries on the maintenance of government programs to reduce smoking. They too have an interest in the ‘facts’ Indeed there are facts about them which are notable, not least that the anti-smokers increasingly look, as did their temperance predecessors, like a middle-class clique determined to impose their views on the smoking lower classes. And there is room for considerable disagreement about the alleged social costs of smoking.

Democratic and supposedly rational societies set great store by debate both to sift facts by competition and to reconcile the claims of different interests. One does not have to agree with Professor Tollison and his colleagues in order to applaud their work. It is not their views – though they are important – which should command sympathy but their attempt to go on putting views, to maintain and improve debate. Conversely, one can only be suspicious of those in the anti-smoking lobby who are so eager to declare that the competition in ideas is over.