Mark Latham is partly right: there is a parenting crisis, but not exactly of the sort he envisages. Yes, children do seem to be more unruly and parenting is becoming more difficult and demanding, but a large part of the reason for this is because parents are becoming more scarce.
The figures bear this out. Over a million children come home each night to a single parent family. Around a quarter of all children born are raised without two parents. A third of all marriages end in divorce, with half of those divorces involving children under 18.
So more and more single parents (who are mostly mums) are trying to perform the Herculean task of raising children with only half the resources and twice the responsibilities. They deserve all the support they can get, but they face a mammoth undertaking. The overwhelming weight of social science research tells us that children raised outside of married two-parent families are much more likely to display the sorts of problems Mark Latham is concerned about: discipline problems, violence problems, trouble with the law, difficulty at school, and so on. Sure, kids from two parent families also can be found with these problems, but on nowhere near as large a scale as children from other types of family structures.
So if Mr Latham wants to see a drop in criminal activity, a restoration of discipline and responsibility, and a reduction of truancy, he should be doing all he can to ensure that more children are born into, and raised by, two parent families, preferably cemented by marriage.
Yet even when there are two parents present, increasingly children are being raised by strangers, while both parents are in the paid workforce, trying to make ends meet. The same lack of boundaries, support, discipline and parental input that children from single-parent families can face will often plague a child who sees less and less of mum and dad, and more and more of substitute parents, such as day-care workers, as professional as they might be.
The bottom line is children need a mother and a father, and they need quantity time with them, not just quality time. In that sense John Howard is right to be squeamish about Mr Latham’s proposals. Bureaucrats and social workers are no substitutes for parents.
Mark Latham may have a point when he speaks of the need for special parenting courses. After all, people entering marriage and parenting often come with no prior training or experience. One needs a license to drive a car, but almost anyone can have children. But the question arises, who is better placed to look after a child: parents who deeply love their children, or judges, educators and social workers?
What a parent may lack in special training and skills, he or she will often make up for in commitment, dedication and love; indispensable ingredients in healthy parenting. If we allow the State to determine what makes a good parent, we could end up in the kind of Brave New World scenarios of state-run orphanages, and mandatory removal of children deemed not properly looked after. Now we already do that to a limited degree, but only with great caution and as a last resort. But to let a panel of experts determine which parent is up to scratch becomes a frightening prospect.
By all means we should have more pre-marriage education, more parenting courses on offer, more marriage counseling and more support mechanisms for parents under stress. But to transfer the job of parenting from a loving mother and father to an indifferent bureaucracy hardly seems like an improvement.
Problem parents will always be around, and they will always be the exception. Most parents try their best, and most parents passionately love their children. So yes, let’s give them support. But let’s help them to perform the tasks only they can really do. Children thrive when raised in loving and committed two-parent families. Common sense, and the empirical evidence, make this clear. So if the new family-friendly Labor Party wants to do right by our children, it should support marriage, it should support mothers and fathers as a team, and it should seek to change an economic system that often drives parents away from their own children.