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May 30, 2008

The fact that some traditional two-parent families are joyless places is no reason to damn the institution wholesale - yet that is what much of bien-pensant opinion seeks to do, argues Theodore Dalrymple

Posted by Theodore Dalrymple

Some traditional two parent families are miserable, joyless places. Yet - argues Theodore Dalrymple - the denigration of the "ideal normal" of family life has done nothing to improve the quality of childhood in Britain.

The decision of the House of Commons not to require a woman seeking in vitro fertilisation to have a man even remotely in tow will not have much of an effect, demographically-speaking. After all, I have already met too many mothers whose sexual partner and co-parent of whose child was a syringe to worry very greatly about the statistical effects of Parliament's decision. The idea that, but for this decision, the British population would be playing happy families is, I am afraid, delusory.

Forty-two per cent of births in Britain are now out of what used to be called wedlock; and in some areas of the country - not those with the highest levels of social well-being - the figure must be fast approaching one hundred per cent. In such areas, to ask a young person who his father is has become almost indelicate, and if insisted upon is met either with incomprehension ("Of what relevance to anything could it possibly be?"), or with a shrug ("How should I know?"), or with an enquiry - is what is meant the adult male who is currently most frequently to be found in the household, though not necessarily to the extent of living in it full-time?

As to wedlock itself, it is not what it used to be, at least from the point of view of stability. Although marriages are more stable than other forms of cohabitation, a quarter of them do not last ten years. This means that, in the statistical sense, it is abnormal for a British child to end his childhood with the same adults in the household as when his childhood began. Instability is the norm.

There is another meaning of the word normal: that is to say, the normal that is the unattainable goal which people nevertheless try, as near as possible, to attain. It is surely beyond doubt that monogamy accompanied by faithfulness to the spouse has never prevailed since the world began. DNA tests would have demonstrated throughout history that even in the most monogamous of societies a goodly percentage of men's supposed children were not their own.

So successful, however, has been the attack not only on the practice, but the very ideal, of marriage, that it hardly exists any more as an ideal. This is obvious from a quick look of the works of the most popular and prolific author of children's books of our time, Jacqueline Wilson.

In most of her books, it is taken for granted that the young protagonists do not live in nuclear or two-parent families (the parents being of opposite sexes). Many of the children, on the contrary, have emerged from what would once have been thought of as anomalous or even pathological domestic circumstances. When pathology is normal, however, it becomes mere physiology. No one notices it any longer.

This kind of children's literature is both a cause and an effect. It is a cause because the children who read it will grow up without an awareness that the social arrangements described in it were ever thought of as odd or aberrant. The long march through the generations will have been entirely successful.

It is an effect because, of course, the publishers believe - rightly or wrongly, but sales seem to suggest the latter - that children want to read something that is recognisable to them, that reflects the world in which they live. And there can hardly be a child in the country who does not have a friend whose parents are divorced, separated, never married, completely unknown to each other, in murderous hatred of one another, etc. The literature is therefore an implicit recognition of a change that has already taken place, of which it is a consequence.

Now one would have imagined from the passion with which the case against the necessity, or even desirability, of a father (or merely a father-figure) was argued that something of vast practical effect was at stake, such as (was once) the granting property rights to women. And this passion explains some of the strangeness of what was said.

For example, an editorial in The Guardian, titled "Progress prevails", reported with disapproval what one Member of Parliament had said in the debate:

A knight of the shires, Sir Patrick Cormack, aired [a pernicious message]: "in Staffordshire, at least, it is considered normal for a child to have a father."
This might not be accurate, sociologically-speaking, but it is difficult to see why, if true, it would be a pernicious message. The editorial then explains why:
It is hard to see who is helped by the unstated branding of children from non-traditional families as "abnormal".
But it is clear that the knight of the shires - ex officio to be despised - did not brand any children as abnormal, or advocate any such branding. The normality to which he referred was the normality of a family structure, one in which children (on the whole) lived with their progenitors.

It is, of course, perfectly true that in the past some children were cruelly and unjustly stigmatised. Mothers of illegitimate children were sometimes confined to lunatic asylums merely by virtue of having given birth to such children. Not even the most traditionalist knight of the shires would propose returning to such practices.

But this is not quite the same as saying that such stigmatisation was so bad that it means that society as a whole should make no judgment at all as to what kind of association between men and women is best for children (again, speaking statistically, for there is no form of association that absolutely guarantees either success or failure).

Neither is the avoidance even of the possibility of such stigmatisation the only, or even a very important, purpose of policy. And I think we can be tolerably certain that our willing, even eager, destruction of an ideal normal of family life has not improved the quality of childhood in Britain. Furthermore, it leaves us intellectually defenceless against, for example, the demand for the official recognition of polygamy, for where much is encouraged, eventually everything will be permitted.

Theodore Dalrymple is a writer and worked for many years as an inner city and prison doctor. He is the author of the author of Junk Medicine: Doctors, Lies and the Addiction Bureaucracy.


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Why are there not more children's books set in polygamous families as is the norm in much of the world? Surely it is better to have one father and four mothers as advocated in the Holy Koran than to be a fatherless bastard who has no idea of what his or her lineage is or to have two fathers in an unatural relationship ?

Posted by: John Williams at June 3, 2008 10:07 PM
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Wasn't it the LGBTs pushing for a similar agenda through the Democratic Party that handed the USA (and the world) two sessions of "Dubya"?

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at June 6, 2008 02:05 PM
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