237. "The Parenting Deficit" The Guardian (October 15, 1993) p. 20.


THE TROUBLE with the recent debate about parental responsibility is that both sides (or more) have a point. Conservatives are right that many families have been neglecting their children, that parents must assume more responsibility for their children, and that they should be sent strong signals that this is their duty.

Conservatives are also right in assuming that character formation starts at home. When children are born they have no values and only the family can lay the first foundations for the moral education of children for their benefit, and for the benefit of the rest of society. If families neglect these duties, children often grow into adults who have little motivation to work or be civil, and who, at worst, kill people without remorse. At the same time, it is true that economic factors also play a decisive role. It is indefensible to pressurise people to go to work when there are lots of able-bodied, well-motivated people who cannot find work. And it is cynical to harp on one side of the argument and ignore the other. Young people need other things to do than hang around street corners and pubs: if society cannot generate enough jobs, then it should draft them for national service to fulfil environmental and social missions. But it should also ensure that parents will attend to their basic moral education since although schools and churches can take it from there they cannot provide the very first moral foundations: these require parental bonding.

Enabling parents to do their job is again a double-edged assignment. If unions would "allow" and employers would arrange for more work to be done at home (increasingly possible because of technical advances), if there were more opportunities for flexi-time and shared jobs, and for proportional fringe benefits for those who work part-time, then parents could be better parents. Unfortunately, these are the kind of changes conservatives do not like to talk about.

On the other hand, progressives need to realise that economic determinism went out with Marx. (Actually, he never was that vulgar a Marxist.) Culture makes a difference. We need a change in the habits of the heart, of mind sets and values. We must come to appreciate the job parents do and re-value children.

For underlying many of today's concerns is a sense that the quality of parenting has fallen. Millions have left to work outside the home, to be replaced by inadequate, poorly paid and insecure childcare workers. This isn't the fault of the women's movement. All women did was demand what men had long taken for granted, and few expected that women's emancipation would produce a society suffering from an acute parenting deficit, in which all adults would act like men who in the past were inattentive to children.

So tackling the parenting deficit does not mean a return to having women at home and having men work outside the household. But those concerned with the quality of parenting cannot be oblivious to the rising divorce rate. While it is true that some single parents do as good a job or better than two parents, it is not the case across the board. American studies show that children from broken homes are more likely to have intellectual (learning) and social (behavioural) problem than children from intact families. They also have worse criminal records. Critics say that this is because single parents have a lower income, which is partly true. But even this is also in part caused by divorce. It simply costs more to run two households than one.

Above all, bringing up a child is a labour-intensive mission. There are never enough hands and voices to do what needs to be done. Africans say that it takes a whole village to raise a child. In the past, the extended family helped the two-parent family: today, when both parents work outside the household, they have a hard time finding enough time and energy for their children. A single parent is more likely to be beleaguered.

To make families stronger, we need to teach interpersonal skills in schools. Findings show that stable couples fight about as often as unstable couples, but they fight better. One can teach people to attack the issue and not the person, to set aside a cooling-off period before issues are tackled, and not to bring up everything that ever happened before at each opportunity.

We also need more marriage preparation sessions. In the US, churches and synagogues provide sessions so that prospective marriage partners can discuss basic issues - such as how family finances will be handled, whether or not to have children, and what to do if one partner gets a job in another city. Family counselling and mandatory delays for those who have elected to divorce also help. What matters even more than these arrangements is the change in culture they signify: marriage is not passe and family is important - for the sake of the children and the society that must live with the consequences when children are not brought up right.

It is always better to provide people with positive messages and incentives than to coerce them. Firstly, if simply punished, they will often not comply. (Penalties on welfare mothers in the US have little influence on how many children they have and how they are treated. There is very little a welfare mother can do to make a teenager attend school, or to stop him dealing drugs).

Second, the penalties fall on innocent children when benefits are cut. Last but not least, it is easy to tell when penalties on parents on benefits really aim at changing their behaviour, and when they are aimed at saving money for the state: if the goal is behavior modification, the income penalties generated should be dedicated to providing incentives for those who "behave". When this is opposed, the champions of welfare penalties reveal what is uppermost in their mind.

For communitarians who want to shift the balance back from the radical individualism of the eighties towards the needs of the community, the priority is to work both on the side of culture and on the economy. The communitarian agenda calls for a change in values and for new measures to provide jobs and encourage flexible working. It seeks to motivate people to do their duty and favours penalties only as a last resort. Above all, it recognises that nothing is more important for society than that parents should be urged, and enabled, to be good parents.

Amitai Etzioni is Professor of Sociology at George Washington Univeristy. His pamphlet, "The Parenting Deficit," is published by the independent think-tank, Demos.

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