Wednesday, October 05, 2005

What is the point of children?

Television chatshows in the United Kingdom have one staple: a warring young couple with two or three children apiece and a shared baby. The typical story runs along these lines: young girl has two children from a previous relationship; she meets young boy who already has a child of his own. Young boy is sent to prison, invariably for burglary or joyriding. Young girl is pregnant. When young boy comes out of prison, he accuses young girl of cheating on him, and they end up on a television show with the theme: Lying ex! Is my baby really mine? Or even the more threatening 'I want the truth TODAY!'

The understanding chatshow host gives both parties a chance to put their stories, and then runs through some standard questions, well knowing what the answers will be: did you plan this baby? Is there a history of alcohol abuse in the family? Is there a history of drug use in the family?

As the chatshow host does not really have any answers to the problems, or more likely, dare not express her real views on the matter, she falls back on a default statement, 'the innocent party in all this is the child. You should think of the child'.

This statement can be guaranteed to bring applause from the studio audience. By the same token, any member of the studio audience who utters these magic words is generously applauded and acknowledged with the sort of respect normally reserved for a guru or psychic.

This would lead us to believe that the British are a nation of children lovers. Do not be fooled. That is far from the truth. This is a nation which has not yet worked out what children are for. To some, they are a tool with which to beat guilt-ridden working mothers into submission (Daily Mail). To some parents, children are little gods and goddesses at whose pampered altars they must pay homage every Christmas. To the Government, they are little beings to be bribed with precious taxpayers money (Child Trust Funds, anyone?) in the hope that the appreciative parents will do the right thing and vote wisely.

Perhaps it is the Government's ambiguous relationship with the nation's children that is currently causing the confusion. The Government that thinks nothing of jailing a mother because her teenage children refused to go to school is the same Government that doles out contraceptives to 14 year olds behind their parents' backs. So who is responsible for the children? Legislation exists to penalise parents who give their children a good whipping, yet these same parents are blamed by Tony Blair when their children turn out bad. (Contentious issue, I know, but I will point out that there is a difference between chastisement and inflicting violence. On my side of this argument, I have no less an authority than the Bible. Proverbs 13.24, since you ask.)

Children are tough young things, and well able to weather some of these things that we feel would cripple them. Mother going out to work? That's nothing! I was brought up with the sort of studied nonchalance that would have landed my parents in jail were it to happen in this day and age. I don't think this harmed us in any way. My mother went out to work. It didn't even occur to me and my brothers that it could be any other way. My parents frequently went on their annual holidays around Europe and America while we stayed at home with our grandmother and uncles. I remember they once went on holiday and left us in the care of a slip of a girl who had just finished her A'levels. We were all happy with the arrangement. For us, it also gave us a break from our parents for a month, and we could hardly wait for them to leave. I still remember the jubilant celebration as they drove off to the airport that night. However, if that were in these times, my dear mother would have been on the front page of the Sun, above the caption 'Monster Mum leaves Tots for Month-long Jolly'.

A recent study on happiness has just shown that, contrary to what we may think, having children does not make us any happier. So why are we sitting here pretending? Because we feel too guilty to admit that. For the most part, guilt plays a huge part in our relationship with our children. We know it. The tabloids know it. Trisha Goddard the chatshow host knows it. The Government knows it.

So what can we do about it? Nothing much. Accept the truth. Accept that with children, we can never be 100 per cent right. Accept that Princess Michael of Kent was right when she said earlier this year that the English take the breeding of their horses and dogs more seriously than they do that of their children. To quote her, 'God forbid that the wrong drop of blood should get into their Labrador, but their children marry however they wish'. Accept that, and get on with it.
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