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Jill Kirby

Jill Kirby: The media won't tell you, but what British parents really want is more time to spend with their children

Last week's UNICEF report on parenting led to a flood of news items lamenting the consumer culture and its impact on British children. Painting a sorry picture of family life, in which children are being fobbed off with toys instead of the parental attention they crave, UNICEF's media operation was such a success that hardly anyone pointed out how few families actually took part in their research. Would you like to take a guess?

Bear in mind that this report compared parenting in three European countries: Spain, Sweden and Britain. So a reasonable research sample might have been, say, 1,000 families in each country - total 3,000 families questioned. In fact, UNICEF interviewed a total of 25 – yes, twenty-five – families. That's fewer than ten per country. I know, it's astonishing, isn't it? And to think that the report was part-funded by our very own Department of Education. I hope they got it cheap. I could have produced a bigger research sample by phoning round my friends.

A more representative piece of research on British family life, also released last week, was commissioned by Tessa Jowell in preparation for Labour's forthcoming party conference. Carried out by a Labour-friendly polling organisation called Britain Thinks, this report questioned 2,000 adults in a representative sample and came up with some very emphatic conclusions. Yet the report, entitled the Modern British Family, received almost no press or media coverage, the only exception being a short item by the Daily Mail's assiduous Becky Barrow. Nothing on the Today programme, no comment in the Guardian. The Times and Telegraph, having cleared their front pages for UNICEF, didn't touch the Modern British Family.

Why? Perhaps because it shows that British families don't share the priorities ascribed to them by most of the modern media and almost all of today's politicians. For example, a remarkable 81% of the adults questioned said that ideally one parent should stay at home to look after children. This figure was consistent across all the adults taking part, both parents and childless, with the percentage supporting the ideal of stay-at-home parenting rising as high as 84% among 25-34 year olds. And in a rejection of touchy-feely guilt-ridden parenting notions, 92% felt that being a good parent is “mostly about setting boundaries and good discipline.” Again, there was consistent support for this proposition amongst parents and the childless.

Where the views of families and the child-free diverged was in their feelings about their financial situation: 73% of parents said it's a struggle to make their incomes last through to the end of the month, a concern felt by only 46% of the childless. Clearly families are being squeezed most by rising living costs and are looking to government to ease the pressure

When Tessa Jowell presents the report's conclusions to her party conference next week she will no doubt press home this last message and will seek to portray Ed Miliband as the party leader most able to respond to the “squeezed middle” - those families who are neither rich nor benefit-dependent, but who are trying to make ends meet on average incomes. Despite ignoring these families whilst in government, favouring huge increases in welfare handouts instead, Labour is now doing its best to look family friendly. Certainly it is the Labour-leaning think-tanks who now lead on the subject, most conspicuously the Resolution Foundation (cited by Paul Goodman here last week). Nevertheless, they will all be struggling to reconcile the Britain Thinks report with their favourite nostrums. Instead of demanding more childcare subsidy, it seems parents actually want to look after children themselves. And instead of calling for children's rights, an end to smacking, or lamenting the consumer society, they think good discipline is crucial.

To complete their report, Britain Thinks tested its polling data on two focus groups of parents and found robust backing for the survey's conclusions, as well as some very emphatic support for “traditional” family life. Mothers not only wanted more time at home with children, those who had been at work also seemed to regret the time lost: “You'll never get those years back” was one poignant comment. Fathers rejected the idea of lone-parent families as an alternative family model, believing instead that society needs to value the role of fathers much more. 

And the report's overall headline conclusion? That the government should support the traditional family by providing tax breaks for parents who stay together.

Given the current cross-party silence on the subject of such tax breaks, let alone any help for stay-at-home parents, it's not surprising that the focus groups also concluded that “No politicians or political parties are seen to represent or understand the problems and priorities of the Modern British Family.” As Labour and Conservatives prepare for their party conferences, will either be able to change that perception? Modern British Families may not (yet) have grabbed headlines, but it certainly deserves to be on David Cameron's Manchester reading list.


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