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Thursday, June 15, 2006

Watch with Mother

Is there any issue inherently less likely to get balanced media coverage than 'stay-at-home mums'? Here's a contribution on the subject from Carole Sarler in the Times, typical in its tone of touchiness verging on belligerence:-

'Only now, this now of domestic labour-saving devices and Tesco home deliveries and SUVs for school-runs, only now might the woman who eschews the labour market call herself — in the absence of anything else she has to do — a full-time mother. And bully for her, if it is what she chooses, if she has found someone else to pay for it, if she is immune to accusations of indulgence and idleness or if she believes, as many sincerely do, that her permanent presence is in the better interests of her children.

'But if she then justifies her choice, in the process provoking unease in parents who have chosen otherwise, by suggesting that it is she who adheres to a proven, time-honoured pattern for child-rearing, then it is she — not they — who is wrong.'

We're not left in much doubt that for Ms Sarler this is personal. As for the substance, the 'we used to live in a cardboard box' stuff earlier in the article is surely overdone. In the nineteenth century middle-class households had servants. When servants became hard to come by the domestic appliance industry took off. My grandmothers' pre-war generation may well have fallen into a hiatus where they got the worst of both worlds, but it was not of long duration. Reading Ms Sarler you'd think Hoovers and washing machines were invented the day before yesterday.

Be that as it may: if she objects to full-time motherhood being presented as a proven, time-honoured pattern, that's fine by me. Call it a bold radical innovation instead. The thing is, that's actually more or less totally irrelevant to the question whether it is good for kids. And that seems to me to be a question worth asking, however uncomfortable it makes Ms Sarler. Because if it does turn out that they are best served by an option which most parents cannot realistically take, it might be a nice idea to frame policies that give more parents a real choice.

I'm not familiar with the research, but I feel I'd like a guide who's just a little less partisan than Ms Sarler. When she says that disruptive behaviour in nursery-raised kids 'is only marginally increased' I'd like to know what she counts as marginal.

By way of compensation she tells us 'it has also been shown that the nursery alumni go on to do better both at school and later in life' (this is evidently a conclusive and non-marginal finding). So raising disaffected and obnoxious toddlers is not only OK, it's positively the recipe for ensuring they get ahead. What a comforting thought.

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