On the censoring of seriousness for children

Our local church runs a monthly service aimed at children, with crafts and without Holy Communion. The team that organises the Friends and Family services are lovely, work very hard to come up with activities and an appealing programme for younger worshippers, and it is popular with families many of whom I don’t see at regular services. My daughter (3) loves it.

It’s on the first Sunday of every month, so the first Sunday of Advent coincided with the Friends and Family service. My daughter enjoyed decorating the Christmas tree, making little Christmas crafts and other activities. But one thing puzzled and still puzzles me.

This is one of the songs we were invited to sing. ‘Hee haw, hee haw, doesn’t anybody care? There’s a baby in my dinner and it’s just not fair.’ It’s supposed to be a funny song, from the donkey’s point of view, about the Holy Family in the stable and Jesus in the crib. What I don’t understand is why this should be considered more suitable for children than (say) Away In A Manger.

The former depends, for any kind of impact, on a level of familiarity with the Christmas story that allows you to see it’s a funny retelling and to get the joke. That already makes it more suitable for adults. The latter paints the Christmas scene in simple language and follows it with a prayer that connects the picture with the greater story of the faith it celebrates. The tune is easy to learn and join in with. Why choose the first, with its ironic posture and ugly, difficult tune, over the latter with its plain language and unforced attitude of devotion?

I’ve wondered for some time what it is about our culture that makes us reluctant to allow children to be serious. Children are naturally reverent: if the adults around them treat something as sacred, even very young children will follow suit without much prompting. This should come as no surprise – the whole world is full of mystery and wonder to a 3-year-old. It is us that fails so often to see this, not the children.

So why do we feel uncomfortable allowing children to experience seriousness? Sacredness? Reverence? How and why have we convinced ourselves that children will become bored or fractious unless even profoundly serious central pillars of our culture, such as the Christmas story, are rendered funny and frivolous?

The only explanation I can come up with is that it reflects an embarrassment among adults, even those who are still observant Christians, about standing quietly in the presence of the sacred. What we teach our children, consciously or unconsciously, is the most unforgiving measure of what we ourselves hold important. But it seems we shift uncomfortably at the thought of a preschool child experiencing the full force of the Christmas story in all its solemnity. Instead we find ourselves couching it in awkward irony, wholly unnecessary for the children but a salve to our own withered sense of the divine.

If it has become generally uncomfortable for us to see reverence in a young child, during Advent, then the Christian faith really is in trouble.

Why liberal feminists don’t care

A society that venerates health, youth and individual autonomy will not much enjoy thinking about birth or death. We are born helpless and need years of care until we reach the happy state of health and autonomy. At the other end of life, the same often applies: the Alzheimer’s Society tells us there are some 850,000 dementia patients in the UK and that this will rise to over a million by 2025 as life expectancy continues to rise.

If we are reluctant to dwell on the reality of human vulnerability at either end of life, we are unwilling to give much thought to its corollary: that (somewhere safely hidden from the more exciting business of being healthy, youthful and autonomous) there must be people caring for those who are unable to do it themselves. Someone is wiping those bottoms.

Traditionally, this job of caring for the very old and the very young has been “women’s work”. To a great extent, it still is: the OECD reports that, worldwide, women do between two and ten times as much caring work as men.

In the UK, this tends in statistics to be framed as “unpaid work”, a sort of poor relation of the economically productive type that happens in workplaces and contributes to GDP.

Carers UK suggests there are around 9 million people caring for others in the UK part or full-time, of whom up to 2.4 million are caring for both adults and their own children. Women carry out the lion’s share of this work: 60% according to the ONS. Full-time students do the least and, unsurprisingly, mothers with babies do the most. Older working women carry the heaviest load of people in employment, with those in the 50-60 bracket being twice as likely as their male counterparts to be carers whether of a vulnerable adult, a partner or a child or grandchild.

Second-wave feminism pushed hard against the pressure women experience to take on this work of caring. Within this variant of liberalism, caring work is routinely framed as a burden that imposes an economic “penalty” while harming the economy by keeping skilled women away from the workplace. The OECD report cited above states: “The gender gap in unpaid care work has significant implications for women’s ability to actively take part in the labour market and the type/quality of employment opportunities available to them.”

The implication is that, once freed of this obligation, women can then pursue more fulfilling activities in the workplace.

So what does this liberation look like in practice? According to a 2017 report by the Social Market Foundation, women in managerial and professional occupations are the least likely to provide care, as are people with degree qualifications. The number working in routine occupations who also donate more than 20 hours a week of care in their own homes is far higher than those in intermediate or professional occupation.

In other words, higher-earning women are to a far greater extent able to outsource the wiping of bottoms to less well-off people, who are themselves typically women: 90% of nurses and care workers are female.

These women are then too busy to wipe the bottoms of their own old and young, who are sent into institutional care. Such institutions are typically staffed by women, often on zero hours contracts, paid minimum wage to care for others all day before going home to do so for their own babies and elderly. The liberation of women from caring is in effect a kind of Ponzi scheme.

This is a problem for our liberal society, for two interlocking reasons. Firstly, the replacement of informal family-based care with a paid, institutional variety renders caring impersonal, in a way that invites cruelty. Indeed, cases of care home abuse are well documented – see herehere or here – and the number is rising: the CQC received more than 67,500 in 2018, an increase of 82 per cent over the already too high 2014 figure of 37,060.

It is difficult to see how this could be otherwise. Caring for those who are physically or mentally incapacitated is emotionally testing even when we love those we care for. An exhausted worker on a zero-hours contract, paid the minimum wage to perform more home visits than she can manage in the allotted day, is unlikely to have a great store of patience to begin with, let alone when faced with a refractory “client”. The entire system militates against kindness.

Secondly, and relatedly, it turns out that the informal, traditionally female networks in which caring for the young and old once took place were actually quite important. Those networks also ran church groups, village fetes, children’s play mornings – all the voluntary institutions that form the foundation of civil society.

When caring is treated as “unpaid work” and we are encouraged to outsource it in favour of employment, no one of adult working age has time for voluntary civil society activities any more. If the number of people caring informally for relatives is waning, replaced by institutional care, so is voluntarism: between 2005 and 2015 alone there was a 15% drop in the number of hours donated (ONS).

The result is loneliness. Almost 2.5m people aged between 45 and 64 now live alone in the UK, almost a million more than two decades ago. Around 2.2 million people over 75 live alone, some 430,000 more than in 1996. In 2017, the Cox Commission on loneliness described it as “a giant evil of our time”, stating that a profound weakening of social connections across society has triggered an “epidemic” of loneliness that is having a direct impact on our health.

Several generations into our great experiment in reframing caring as a burden, we are beginning to count the cost of replacing mutual societal obligations with individual self-fulfilment: an epidemic of loneliness, abuse of the elderly and disabled in care homes, substandard childcare. A society liberated from caring obligations is, with hindsight, a society liberated from much that was critically under-valued.

What is the alternative? Some would prefer a more communitarian approach to caring for the old and the young. Giles Fraser recently wrote on this site that caring for the elderly should be the responsibility of their offspring:

“Children have a responsibility to look after their parents. Even better, care should be embedded within the context of the wider family and community. […] Ideally, then, people should live close to their parents and also have some time availability to care for them. But instead, many have cast off their care to the state or to carers who may have themselves left their own families in another country to come and care for those that we won’t.”

These are strong words and there is much to agree with, but the barest glance at the statistics shows that in practice what that means is “women have a responsibility to look after their parents”.

If we are to count the costs of liberating society from mutual caring obligations, we must also count the benefits, as well as who enjoyed them. Society once encouraged men to seek worldly success, underpinned by the imposition of an often-suffocating domestic servitude on women.

Liberalism blew this out of the water by declaring that in fact both sexes were entitled to seek some form of worldly activity and fulfilment. It is not enough to point to negative side effects of this change and say: “Someone needs to be resuming these mutual caring obligations or society will disintegrate.”

To women well-accustomed to the widespread tacit assumption that it is they who will pick up those underpants, wash up that saucepan, pack that schoolbag and so on, this sounds a lot like a stalking-horse for reversal of societal changes that, on balance, most of us greatly appreciate. In truth no one, whether liberal or post-liberal, wants to confront the enormous elephant that liberal feminism left in society’s sitting room: the question of who cares. Who, now that we are all self-actualising, is going to wipe those bottoms? There are no easy answers.

This article first published in Unherd

Miserable babies in industrial childcare

THE Times reports that a chain of nurseries has invested in ‘frustration toys’ for children prone to biting. The Tops Day Nurseries operations director said: ‘The children learn that if they get the sudden desire to bite they can select a teething toy or similar to bite on to release the urge.’

With more than three-quarters of UK mothers of dependent children in work, non-maternal childcare is overwhelmingly the norm for young children in this country, and it makes its impact, at a mass scale, on their development.

Decades of research show that maternal attachment – meaning the strength and security of the bond between mother and young child – is of crucial importance in laying the foundations for psychological wellbeing in later life. We have known since 1997 that children spending more than ten hours a week in poor quality childcare are at increased risk of for unhappiness and insecurity.

That children left in ‘industrial’ childcare settings (however committed individual staff may be) are likely to be less secure than those cared for by a loving mother at home will not come as a shock to readers of The Conservative Woman. What is disturbing is the rising prevalence of nursery behaviour indicating infants’ frustration and unhappiness. It suggests an epidemic of infant misery across the country as barely-verbal preschoolers shuttle between screen time at home as their overworked parents scrabble to complete domestic chores around full-time jobs, and sometimes chaotic nursery settings which function less as caring environments for development than holding facilities for children whose parents cannot afford to look after them themselves.

Stones would weep for these poor babies. For their mothers as well: I know too many women who spent weeks in a state of bereavement, sobbing in the office loos on returning to work after maternity leave. Eventually, those mothers became accustomed to suppressing the visceral desire to be physically close to their baby (for a 12-month-old is still a baby). Presumably their babies adjust – at whatever cost – as well. But for the most part, these sobbing mothers are returning not to fulfilling careers but to mundane jobs. They have little choice: the alternative is not staying at home with their baby but having their home repossessed.

The conservative stance on these matters has for some time been to see the problem in terms of women’s needs (not babies’ needs) and their assumed desire and priority for fulfilment via the workplace.

Now too much screen time and the pressures on working parents, which means they are not spending time talking to their children, are blamed for the rise in children’s problems communicating. 

Seeing the situation through this lens alone ignores the way public policy, from left and right, has been falling over itself for years to put the entire population – male, female, young and old – under this pressure by driving them out of the home and its purported ‘economic inactivity’ and into GDP-boosting employment instead.

To glance past this and place the blame solely on mothers, as individuals, for the misery of their babies in industrial childcare is at best wilful blindness and at worst a kind of sadism. Where are the voices in our political discourse who are unafraid to stand up for mothers and mothering and say that some things matter more than GDP? That top of the list is family life and especially the needs of young children?

This article was first published in The Conservative Woman

The Somewheres are beginning to organise

Yesterday I attended the SDP’s party conference. The rump of the party that merged with the Liberals to become the Liberal Democrats has enjoyed something of a revival in the last year under William Clouston, who has led the charge to reinvent its social-democratic platform along distinctly post-liberal lines. The party is a minnow compared to the big hitters of conference season, but the conference was important. Here’s why.

With very few exceptions, the party’s leadership do not live in London. Its strongest support base is in Yorkshire, notably around Leeds where the conference was held. Clouston himself lives in a village in the North-East. In his closing remarks, he apologised to delegates for the fact that the next meeting will be in London. Where most of the big parties now talk about the need to take note of the perspective of people outside the capital, within the SDP the reverse is the case.

The party leans centre-right on social issues and centre-left on cultural ones. Broadly speaking, it stands for family, community, nation and a robust welfare state, and bears some similarities to ‘Blue Labour’, Maurice Glasman’s project to bring issues such as family and patriotism back into Labour politics. But whereas Glasman’s project was to a significant degree driven by metropolitan intellectuals, the SDP is not driven by London voices or perspectives. This is also perhaps why the SDP has to date had little cut-through in media terms despite numerous polls that suggest widespread support for a combination of redistributive economic policy with small-c social conservative values.

Movements that articulate concerns or perspectives widespread in the UK population outside major cities have in recent years often been traduced in the media as ‘populist’ or even ‘far right’. But while several speakers at the conference inveighed against identity politics and ‘political correctness’, the SDP is not reactionary. The first motion to carry was one to amend the party policy banning non-stun slaughter to one regulating it, both in the interests of religious tolerance but also to avoid far-right dogwhistles. Clouston himself referred in his speech to a ‘decent populism’ that seeks to return the common concerns of those outside major cities and the liberal consensus to mainstream political discourse.

The watchword was ‘community’ and ‘solidarity’. A key theme emerging from the speakers was: what are the proper limits to individual freedom? Where is it more important to consider the needs of a group? Who pays the price for ‘double liberalism’, and how can we mitigate those costs?

For some considerable time, politics has been something done by Anywheres (Goodhart) and more done to the Somewheres. Efforts to rebalance this have tended to be treated as monstrous aberrations that must be contained, whether with disparaging media coverage or more government funding for some client-state scheme or other.

But looking around on Saturday, my sense is this may change. The Somewheres are beginning to organise.

Weekend long read: in defence of being an arsehole

On Being An Arsehole: A Defence is this weekend’s long read pick, by Jonny Thakkar in The Point. It is a funny and thoughtful discussion of the tension between the author’s wish to fit in socially, and the desire he also feels as a philosopher to ask difficult questions that may push debates – and the social relations within which they take place – into uncomfortable places.

Most people, Thakkar argues, agree with the vast majority of what others say to them, largely in the interests of harmony. But this is unappealing to philosophers, who take active pleasure in argument of a sharpness and persistence most people would find stressful if not downright obnoxious. This, in turn, can have social repercussions for those who approach discussion in this spirit:

For philosophy trains you to presume that genuine listening, and so genuine conversation, involves helping people to clarify their thoughts, and while this might be true in some contexts, it can also have the effect of turning a heart-to-heart into an Oxbridge tutorial. “I know you’re upset, but you’ve said three different things that are in tension with one another” isn’t always the most helpful way to respond to a loved one’s distress, as I have repeatedly discovered.

– JONNY THAKKAR, THE POINT

The challenge for those who would debate is to assess when it is appropriate to ask difficult questions – and when, especially in the modern world of ‘cancel culture’, the frank expression of views is likely to take significant courage:

It seems natural to conclude that the social role of philosophers is to help people think things through by confronting them with counterarguments to their current views. But since there’s no way to do that in a non-philosophical context without coming off as an arsehole, there’s no way for a philosopher to be a good citizen without having the courage to look like a bad one.

– JONNY THAKKAR, THE POINT

In a week where the Prime Minister was accused both of being a leader to right-wing extremists and also of dismissing the murder of Jo Cox as ‘humbug’, a reflection on the debate, trolling and when to keep one’s own counsel feels timely, to say the least.

This piece first appeared in Unherd.

You can’t outsource family life

As if schools did not have enough to do, the Children’s Society charity now wants teachers to monitor pupils’ wellbeing. 

UK children are among the unhappiest in the world and it is no wonder. Everyone has to work to make ends meet so children routinely spend 40-plus hours a week in often noisy, chaotic institutional childcare, outdoor play time is heavily supervised and constrained or simply nonexistent, and parents are too exhausted even to gather the family for dinner. 

Add to that a social life that skips real-life contact for the narcissistic filter of social media, confusing messages about sexuality that blend extreme permissiveness with anxious prurience, doom-laden prognostications about the environment, a shaky economic climate and a dearth of adult role models who wish to behave like adults, and it is no wonder children and young people are confused and unhappy.

But what on earth does anyone imagine will be improved by asking schools to measure this? A child’s wellbeing originates, first and foremost, with his or her family. Certainly a school can contribute to wellbeing but if home life is miserable there is not a great deal teachers can do about it.

The only way this suggestion makes sense is if you accept the premise that the proper place of family life is not with families but within institutions – that in fact families are no longer up to the job and schools should, wherever possible, make up for that shortfall. But loading ever more responsibility on to schools for offsetting the disintegration of family life is to compound the problem. It says to parents: this situation is fine, pray continue doing as you please, and never mind how it affects your children because it is the job of schools to pick up the pieces. Send them to reception class in nappies because you cannot be bothered to potty train them. Don’t bother teaching them to use a knife and fork: they’ll learn it at school. You don’t need to teach them to read an analogue clock – they’re taking them all down from exam halls anyway.

Every additional report suggesting more ways to outsource the duties of family life to state provision encourages adults to abdicate responsibility. It reassures parents that ‘adulting’ is optional, because there are institutions that will make up the shortfall.

Yet more insidiously, with that superficially attractive freedom from adult responsibility comes an ever more profound loss of freedom to conduct family life in the private sphere, or indeed in any way other than that sanctioned by the state. Perhaps that might be to the benefit of a few children with genuinely awful parents. But what of those of us who wish simply for the freedom of conscience to diverge from the official morality of the therapeutic state, and raise children according to our own values?

This article was first published in The Conservative Woman

Censoring motherhood in the name of feminism

The Guardian reports on the first advertisements to fall foul of June’s Advertising Standards Authority rule change on ‘sexist stereotypes’ in advertising. One ad was banned because it depicted a woman sitting on a bench next to a pram. The advertiser claimed that the ad was about ‘adaptation’, and that adjusting to the arrival of a newborn baby is a situation where people must adjust. It was no use. The ASA “concluded that the ad presented gender stereotypes in a way that was likely to cause harm”.

Depictions of motherhood, then, are harmful to women, because they are sexist. Really? Hold on a minute. It is also polite received opinion, among the same class of our Progressive Betters who spend their time complaining about sexism in advertising, that mothers should be encouraged to breastfeed. And in this, our Progressive Betters are not thinking their position through. Because unless a mother is willing to spend hours a day hooked up to a milking machine, breastfeeding obliges her to be near her baby. How else are we to be present, boob at the ready, when our infant is hungry?

How are we to make sense of this muddled message? The only reasonable interpretation is that, in truth, our Progressive Betters do want mothers to breastfeed, to be available to our babies. But they want us to do it brim-full of miserable ambivalence. We are to breastfeed while editing science journals, answering emails from the CEO, or possibly skydiving or in space. We are to keep no more than one foot in motherhood at any time, and feed our babies knowing that this can never be a source of pride. Because to commit fully to motherhood as an occupation (even for a few short years) is to show – at best – a lack of imagination and ambition, if not a fully-fledged identification with patriarchal oppression and concomitant hatred of the rest of our sex.

The notion that depictions of motherhood are ‘harmful stereotypes’ is a rejection of the reality that a majority of mothers want to care for their children, generally a great deal more than they want to spend all day staring at spreadsheets, trading stocks or cleaning offices. But it is worse than that: by depicting motherhood as a ‘harmful’ stereotype, this value system encodes in the public sphere the notion that motherhood is a kind of failure.

In these rulings, in the name of social progress, the ASA has institutionalised contempt for traditionally feminine values. Women, it is implied, only throw off our oppression to the extent that we succeed in dissociating ourselves from any of the qualities traditionally (that is to say stereotypically) associated with motherhood. Values such as kindness, patience, empathy, self-sacrifice, placing others’ interests before our own. These values are ‘harmful’ and could (in the words of the ASA) result in women ‘limiting how [they] see themselves and how others see them and the life decisions they take’.

Instead, we should embrace stereotypically masculine virtues: courage, activity, adventurousness, leadership. Never mind that most women want to play the lead role in caring for their children, and that kindness, patience and a willingness to put others first are considerably more useful when dealing with a howling preschooler than two doctorates or experience leading a blue-chip corporation. Or is that just my identification with my own oppression?

Most women do a solid job of combining work interests and caring for children. More power to every single one of us, however we make it work. But it really does not help to be told that half of our useful skill set – which we know perfectly well is useful – is in fact ‘harmful’ and encouraging us to limit ourselves. Has the ASA and the rest of our Progressive Betters considered that those of us who are mothers, and who do not prioritise work above all else, just have a different idea of what constitutes ‘limitation’, and what constitutes success?

Perhaps our Progressive Betters should step back from their attempts at social engineering and think about the message they are actually conveying. Perhaps they might consider that using institutional power to enforce public valorisation only of women performing stereotypically ‘masculine’ activities, and censoring any association of women with stereotypically ‘feminine’ ones, in truth does real women with real children no favours. That they are in fact liberating women from nothing but our confidence that the skills we use in caring for our children are valuable, and that caring is itself valuable. Perhaps then they might see that their efforts to censor any public representation of motherhood, or valorisation of the traits that help mothers succeed, represents not feminist progress but a profound hatred of motherhood: the deepest and most vindictive misogyny of the lot.

This article first appeared in The Conservative Woman