Who learns from whom?

The Chief Rabbi hit the headlines earlier this month when he accused Europeans of caring more about shopping than spirituality, and being too selfish to accept the responsibility of becoming parents.  “Parenthood involves massive sacrifices; money, attention, time and emotional energy (and in today’s European materialistic society) there is no room for such sacrifices for the sake of generations yet to come”, warned Lord Sacks.

Last week the President of the Girls’ School Association told her colleagues that teenage girls needed to be taught a heavy dose of realism about the difficulty of balancing the raising of their children, with the demands of their careers.  Girls were under an unprecedented pressure to be “the perfect woman” – as successful in their careers as four-fifths of them would need to be in rearing children.  Her remarks sparked the obvious range of criticism in a country preoccupied with arguments about equality and flexible working rights.  “If you [girls] choose someone who undervalues you, you won’t be able to have the support [in life] you might need,” Berry warned.  So very right… but are the alpha boys being given comparable advice?

It is hard for priest, rabbi or headteacher to make this argument (as also argued by the Cambridge Primary Review) when all the pressures are on parents to work ever longer hours to earn more money to buy more things.  This was forcefully brought home to me a couple of days ago by a large canvas poster at the entrance to our local supermarket advertising a new nursery centre available “from birth to six.”  Read that carefully … not from six months to six years, but literally from the first days after birth until the age of six.  The message was all too obvious – drop off your children here as you go out to work, and return in time to put them to bed.

Such centres can look good, sound good and seem to make sense to governments because, expensive as they are, by enabling mothers to get back to work, these costs are more than compensated by a way of greater national productivity.  But is that really true?

Talking with the highly competent woman in charge of one such nursery, she admitted to a real fear that might probably undermine the whole scheme.  She explained that she had several grown-up children of her own, each of whom had had a somewhat difficult adolescence.  It had been in those bad times, when the going was really rough, that she and her husband were strengthened by the memories they had when their children were younger, and this gave them the patience and energy to stick together.  Eventually they came through this fine but, the woman stressed, the energy to do that had come from those early family memories.  “When I see the smiles of the children at the centre, and hear their shouts of joy when they have done something special, and rush up to me for a cuddle, I get very worried for their parents who don’t know their own children anything like as well as I do.  When their children go into adolescence, the parents will have none of the memories that I have of different and easier times to keep them going.”

Drawing such ideas together – the Rabbi, a headmistress and the academic – I recalled an extraordinary discussion with a group of 17-year-olds about “Why have Children?”  The conversation was lively and there was much talk of rights and opportunities, and their own relationship with their parents.  Then one of them came out with the most amazing observation.  “Parents have children to help the parents grow up.”  Maybe that was what Wordsworth meant when he said the child is father of the man.  In the bringing-up of children is the growing-up of the adults.

See Action Three of Briefing Paper and pages 234
and 235 of Overschooled but Undereducated