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?