Archive | May, 2012

Parenting classes: support or interference?

23 May

There has been considerable reaction to the Government announcement last week, that a new scheme to provide parenting classes for mothers and fathers of children under five is being launched as a pilot in a number of areas of the UK.

The classes, designed and run by a number of different organisations, will be available on production of £100 vouchers distributed through Boots stores.  As a ‘non-stigmatised gateway’ to a help and support, this is not a terrible idea.  David Cameron was quick off the blocks with the ‘this is not the nanny state’ comment, just in case critics took the ‘Government interference in private life’ line, which, of course, many have since followed.

The reactions have resulted in a support vs. interference debate which is a bit empty.  Those who are on the ‘support’ side can cite evidence that parents do actively seek help, and surveys that show that they would like/would have liked more.  Those on the ‘laissez-faire’ side say that most people have done, and continue to, manage fine and should not be subjected to some State-sponsored version of the ‘correct’ parent, and should simply trust their own judgement.  In fact, of course, elements of both sides are true: many parents do want a bit of extra help in dealing with the trials of parenting or with particular aspects of children’s behaviour; on the other hand a plethora of professional exhortations on the subject can be bewildering and confusing, and encourage a sense of apathy or hopelessness.

However, perhaps there is a parallel between sex education and parenting classes which might lead us out of a sterile polarisation of these two positions.  In favour of sex education we have the argument that ignorance around sex can lead to all sorts of difficult outcomes: unwanted pregnancy, sexual diseases, sexual exploitation of the vulnerable by the powerful.  If we enter sexual activity with understanding and knowledge, we can then use contraception, protect ourselves from infection and respect our own and our partners’ bodies. The State does not care what kind of sex we actually have, as long as it is consensual, involves people over 16, and we know where to go for assistance if any of the negatives do happen.  Similarly, the long arm of the State need not literally reach into the living room and tell us exactly what to say to or to feel towards our children, but it may, through funding of parenting support, provide some evidence-based insight into aspects of behaviour and conflict management, indicate pitfalls to avoid, and places to seek additional help where appropriate.

There are issues in assessing the effectiveness of parenting programmes – how well various approaches work for whom is not perfectly analysed as yet – but we do know enough to provide constructive guidance in areas that can be fraught: e.g. avoiding harsh discipline, rewarding good behaviour, being aware of the impact of parental conflict on children; reinforcing rather than undermining your partner’s parenting.  There are valid questions raised by sceptics of the scheme about ‘reach’ – will these classes get to the parents with the most to gain?  However, the same points could be addressed to sex education, and I don’t see anyone credibly suggesting that we should just leave young people to work it out for themselves as people have always ended up sleeping together – that would be fucking stupid.  Let’s not parent stupid by default either.

Dark Side of the Moon?

15 May

Wonklifebalance sat down to write a blog about the fact that May 15th was UN International Day of the Family – and yet we don’t seem to have heard much about it.  All the more of a shame, as this year’s theme is work-family balance.  In his message, The UN Secretary General reminded us how lucky many of us are, in that the consequences of a lack of decent childcare are rather worse elsewhere: Affordable quality childcare is rarely available in developing countries, where many parents are forced to leave their preschool children home alone. Many young children are also left in the care of older siblings who, in turn, are pulled from school’. He also noted that ‘Flexible working arrangements, including staggered working hours, compressed work schedules or telecommuting’ are an important part of making work-family balance more attainable, enhancing both working conditions and gender equality.  Amen to that.

However, my attention was diverted by a story that David Cameron has chosen Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd as his favourite album – and all of a sudden the International Family Day seemed too much like the day job, when I could be writing about music instead.  So in an attempt to put the life back into work-life balance and to take up William Hague’s advice that we should all ‘work harder’, it seemed appropriate to write a dual purpose blog.  My first thought on reading of our Prime Minister’s musical preference was that it was just as well he didn’t choose Pink Floyd’s Animals, what with the ‘club tie and the firm handshake, A certain look in the eye and an easy smile’ – aficionados will know it only gets worse from there.  Then, having read a piece in the Telegraph about how he may have demurred from nominating The Smiths album The Queen is Dead, because of the Diamond Jubilee, I wondered what other titles may capture the Zeitgheist.  It’s probably a bit obscure for him, but a niche choice could have been P.M. Dawn, Of the Heart, of the Soul and of the Cross which moves between Notting Hill and the Rose Garden, in the refrain How does it feel to be one of the beautiful? to the ‘less good days’ in Government (Reality used to be a friend of mine).  Several other possibilities crossed my mind, but on the day Rebekah Brooks was charged, and with the Jubilee just round the corner, I realised there could only be one choice: Queen, News of the World.




The Queen’s Speech: a Budget repair kit?

10 May

The Queen’s speech matched our austere times by being rather leaner than usual, containing noticeably fewer bills, and thus ensuring not too many legislative distractions from the Coalition’s primary aim of sorting out the economy.

For those of us who have been following the unfolding post-Budget ‘omnishambles’, today’s speech has some definite points of interest in relation to ‘family-friendliness’ and charities, topics of discussion in previous blogs.

The Government has chosen to frame legislation relevant to families with children (the Children and Families Bill puts together reforms in family justice, parental leave, special educational needs and adoption) in a return to putting families at the ‘front and centre’ of policy.  Recent controversy over Child Benefit reform, cuts to tax credits  – and the ongoing strain of families managing on stagnating incomes alongside rising living costs –  have impacted on the the Government’s family-friendly credentials, and the Bill shows that the Government still wants to be seen to be doing things for families.

So what is it doing?  In family justice the aims are to speed up decision-making around children’s circumstances – so that both formal adoption and going into care become quicker processes.  After parental separation the government wants to strengthen the principle that there should be involvement of both parents where that is in children’s best interests, but there is to be further consultation on how legislation should be framed.  On parental leave the Government is proposing that mothers have the option of transferring later maternity leave to fathers – but a wider reform allowing parents to request flexible working patterns has not materialised.

The Queen’s speech also throws a bone to charities.  Small donations of up to £20 will now be subject to a scheme allowing charities to claim back 25p in every pound donated up to a maximum of £5000 per year – perhaps a crumb of comfort after the ‘tax-dodging philanthropists’ kerfuffle following the Budget measure to cap tax relief on major donations.

Every good student knows that legislation is not just about achieving change through law-making, but about the signals laws send.  And in terms of families the Government is sending out signals about sharing care and earning more evenly between mothers and fathers, and maintaining parent-child relationships post-divorce.  These signals of a greater emphasis on gender equality may be welcome, but without resources to provide well-paid leave for parents and better-paid paternity leave for fathers, the signals may remain just that: an aspiration to greater equality that will not be met by transformative take-up in practice.  Similarly, to encourage post-separation arrangements to be made out- of-court where possible, and to maintain contact between children and non-resident parents, may be viewed as a ‘good thing’ in many quarters, but without further funding it may be hard to supply enough mediation or other forms of family support in the difficult period post-break-up.  The perceived family-unfriendliness of the Budget may be being addressed, but it is the Budget and wider economic policy which have decided what family-friendliness there really will be on the ground.

We need male feminists, not masculinists

3 May

Wonklifebalance read the article about David Benatar’s book ‘The Second Sexism’ on the BBC news website with a sinking feeling.  Access to at least part of its Conclusions on-line has done nothing to lift the initial dismay.  He seems to be arguing that males’ poor performance in education, and that they are now a minority amongst undergraduates, is evidence of discrimination; and that feminist professors who have benefited from privilege in society have no place in denying such claims.  Furthermore, male conscription to arms/war is discriminatory against men, as is the low rate of custody of children granted to men post-divorce.  Apparently women in developed countries are no longer oppressed and the fact that they are not prominent in positions of power is not an outcome of exclusion or discrimination – of what then?

From what is available to read on-line, it would appear that Benatar’s argument is that as women are freely engaged in relatively privileged professions such as teaching, accountancy and the law they cannot therefore claim any form of occupational discrimination – has he noticed who the majority of school heads, partners in law firms, CFOs are?  It is frankly bizarre to argue that because women can enter professions it means that they have achieved equality with men.  Apparently women’s lack of top positions has to be seen alongside the fact that the majority of incarcerated people are men: how men come to be imprisoned in large numbers is an outcome of all sorts of social processes, and last time I looked there was a principle of equality before the law.

In terms of custody of children post-divorce, child welfare is the paramount concern.  It is arguable that post-divorce arrangements do not reflect an increasing role of fathers in their children’s lives – but why might this be the case? Could it be in part because of years of stereotyping around gender roles in parenting? And if so, these attitudes must be seen as discriminating against women – pushing them more than men into undervalued caring roles and inhibiting both their professional advancement, and a more gender-equal distribution of unpaid work. In Nordic countries where more parental leave is shared between men and women, shared residence after separation is also more common.

That women in their 20s now earn at least the same as men is a start; when the same is true for women in their 30s and 40s it will be even more meaningful in terms of sex equality.  So wouldn’t it make more sense all round for men to unite with women in feminism rather than claiming ‘masculinist’ rights in societies where they already dominate? When it comes to creating equality, neither sex can do it alone. If male activists want their emotions taken more seriously they need to involve women in that conversation. Claiming that men’s sufferings in today’s society are equivalent to women’s continuing struggle for equal access to resources, power and a voice, is not going to bring equality any nearer.  In fact the point of such an argument might be to push it further away – no guessing who suffers most then….

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