Sunday, June 13, 2010
06/12/2010 Why stability for kids is good for all of us

Family is back on the agenda under the new government. The novelist Melvin Burgess, who has tried the one-parent, two-parent and multi-parent versions, offers his thoughts on how fixing the family might help to fix society

I regard myself as something of an expert at families. I've tried them all. I was brought up by my married biological parents. I spent eight unmarried years with the mother of my two children, had a couple of years as a single parent, then got married and formed a step-family. That makes me an expert, doesn't it? Or is it a failure?

Everyone sings the praises of the family. It's the basic social unit, the brick from which all society is built. Get it right, with the kids growing up in a stable family, and everything else falls into place. Crime figures fall, drug-taking dwindles, unemployment vanishes into the ether. A good family is the panacea for all ills.

A great deal of wind and a great many words are expended discussing what sort works best now that families are back on the agenda under a new government: among other things we're hearing about marriage and whether it matters, and whether single-parent families are as good as two-parent ones. But perhaps that doesn't go far enough. With the Tories in power again after all these years, maybe it's time to get back to basics. Let's have a look at the very building blocks of family â€" the idea of one or two people bringing up the kids â€" and see what might be wrong with that right at the start. So here, not entirely tongue-in-cheek, is my critique of the British family and what's wrong with it.

Bad choice of partner

How many marriages fail because people fall foolishly in love and end up with someone unsuitable, incompatible or just plain selfish?

I know all about this one. I fell in love â€" ah, it's an old, old story â€" with a dancer. We were both 28; she was beautiful, talented, passionate, committed, poetic. It was several years later, after waking up morning after morning listening to her weeping with rage and frustration because our family life was stopping her dancing, that I seriously began to question the wisdom of my choice. The third pregnancy was one too many and, along with other problems between us, I wasn't having it and left.

Why does the west, with its romantic image of love as something that strikes us unaccountably like a bolt from Cupid's bow, insist on leaving it all so much to chance? If you're starting a family it's staying power that counts. Could it be that we've fallen in love with a false idea of what love is â€" that we've been listening to a bunch of over-excited poets and storytellers when we should have been listening to Desmond Morris or our parents?

The cure? Tricky. You could go to one of the new "compatibility dating" websites â€" unless you have a local matchmaker. Now there's a profession waiting to be founded. This is a decision you need help with â€" don't even think about doing it on your own. At the very least, all young people should undergo some form of feasibility study before they settle down and have children. It's just common sense.

Not enough adults

The idea that two people are enough to look after even one child is risible. One-parent families are hard; two people still aren't enough. Children need a number of grown-ups of various ages around them if they are going to develop to their maximum potential. No wonder so many families go wrong early on when all you have is one young woman, one young man and a brand new baby. No wonder eldest children often have so many social blind spots when they've begun their lives in such an impoverished social situation. A healthy baby should be passed through many arms each day if it's to be properly socialised. Where are those arms? Why are our babies subjected to such a paucity of cuddles?

Of course, in most families, children don't even have two adults most of the time. One is out to work all day and what you're left with, essentially, is a one-parent family â€" the hardest way of all. When I was living in a small Pennine town with the aforementioned dancer, she was away dancing a great deal and I could be on my own for days. By the time she came back I didn't know whether to strangle her or weep in gratitude at her feet. Result? Anxiously fixated children, gibbering father, jealous mother (usually it's the other way round). When the time came to leave I was positively looking forward to single-parenthood. At least I would be forced into seriously building up my social networks.

Mistake. I had a rather romantic notion of being a single parent. I'd spent most of my early adulthood in inner-city Bristol, where single mums abounded. The sound of baby buggies rattling along the pavements or up the hallways of shared houses was universal. But in the small, traditional town I was living in when I came to try out single-parenthood, the pool of like-minded people was small, and I had no family there and few friends. The experience was extremely isolating.

Would my relationship have survived if we were living in a community we were really a part of? That I don't know. But I do know that when you have kids, you need a community around them and you, or everyone suffers.

My next attempt, the step-family , was the biggest disaster of all. I married someone who abounded in stability and good sense; we both worked at it all we could, and my kids reacted as if they'd been dropped off a cliff. Don't even think about giving your child a new parent until at least five years after the first if you want your second marriage to have any chance at all.

Too few kids

Kids are much happier in a mixed group of ages. Groups of, say, 15 to 20 children, ranging from a few months to middle or late teens, look after themselves in a surprisingly superior way. In a group, kids learn how to be kids, then how to be teenagers, then how to be adults, by example from more experienced children. We deny them this fundamental right by segregating them into family groups which encourage damaging, obsessive relationships such as mother-child anxiety syndrome, and sibling competition disorder.

All this is kind of fun, but it does lead to a serious and blindingly obvious point: you can't begin to discuss the family without discussing the community in which it exists â€" not the Big Society, but the Small Society, as Dave might put it. Family is, of course, the first society we live in, but you and your child will be living in other small societies at the same time â€" the society of the street, for one; the society of your larger family for another.

Suppose we were to devise not the perfect family, but the perfect society in which families could operate â€" how would that turn out? One situation that struck me very much when I was young was a huge old house in Somerset, inhabited by several families. I took my kids there a few years later, and at the time I thought it was idyllic. The kids ran around together, and the big ones looked after the little ones. When they got sick of their parents, they went and ate with someone else's family. When their parents got sick of them, there were other adults to take over. There was always a babysitter on hand, and shopping â€" and often cooking â€" was done together. It was great.

Small groups of families may well be the form in which our species evolved. A tribal society â€" could it work here? Probably not. Apart from anything else, we're tied in to what we have by the architecture. Our housing stock is designed for individual families living on their own. Everyone's home is their castle: keep out!

Of course, the idyll in Somerset didn't last long. The families bought the place, did it up and retreated into their units, and the thing became nothing more or less than a block of rural flats. Maybe it was really just a holiday, but even when partners split up, the place itself remained a stable base for the kids growing up there. I still think that, in the huge societies we have today, big is best made up of lots of small and that the key to supporting families isn't with tax breaks to encourage marriage, but by supporting the small communities they live in.

We're going to hear a great deal about the family over the coming years. A vast amount of Conservative social thinking is based on support for the family, as the recent green paper on the family from the Centre for Social Justice thinktank stresses. To its credit, it wants to offer support to families of all kinds, although it spends an inordinate amount of time stressing the importance of marriage. Tax breaks for married couples is top of the agenda.

I know people on the left who get almost apoplectic about this. "How dare they tell us what to do?" goes up the cry. But of course all governments try to influence our behaviour one way or the other. As long as all families are supported, I can't see it's much to argue about. I like ritual. I don't think we have enough of it. I like weddings. Every other society in the world has a ceremony to celebrate people setting up together â€" I don't see why we should be any different.

My advice to anyone thinking of breaking up the family in which their kids have been brought up from the start would be that it will cause more mayhem than you dare to imagine. Don't think for a second that your children are going to be happier because you split up; unless your partner is a genuine bastard, they are probably not. And if you're thinking of starting a family, does your local community, family or otherwise, think your chosen partner fits the job description? What are your support networks? Don't try it till you've lived in the same place for three years at least.

As the poet had it: "They fuck you up, your mum and dad." But as the other poet had it, they tuck you up as well. All your kids are going to want from you for the next 18 years is stability and support, at home, at school and on the streets. Their happiness, and yours, is going to depend on that more than any other factor.

Nicholas Dane, Melvin Burgess's latest novel, is published by Puffin, £7.99. To order a copy for £6.99 (including UK mainland p&p), go to or call 0330 333 6846 ? Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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