Sunday, September 23, 2007

Social attitudes to parenting

The decision to have children is one of the most important decisions that a couple can make. It is often argued that we need a drivers licence to drive a car, but all a girl needs to do to have a child is get impregnated. One might argue that poor driving (which threatens life) is indeed more important than poor parenting (problem child relationships). Well I guess a choice need not be made. In fact we can invest resources in both areas. But the reality is that society plays little attention to family (or parenting) values until too late - until a child is incarcerated. And even then the solution is often to externalise responsibility - to say this person is not a fit member of society and belongs in prison. Prison is the place where they learn to become good criminals - where they learn not to get caught from experienced compatriots. More importantly its a place where criminals can build friendships.

This approach to education strikes me as insane. The rate at which prison populations are growing strikes me as evidence that something is very wrong. Yet this problem is not addressed because the problem is locked away - out of sight, out of mind. The electorate is not at all interested because they are just why should we care since they are detained. Well I can think of several reasons why we should care:
1. The recidivism rate - the rate at which criminals reoffend upon release from prison
2. The cost - the cost of building and operating prisons, compensating victims and rehabilitating criminals
3. The opportunity cost - the lost profits that could have been generated by criminals and their administrators if they had played a positive role in society
4. The escalation rate - the rate at which the system is reinforcing crime and the severity of crime

Part of the problem is that crime is simply viewed as a statistical certainty. There is a rather 'pragmatic' perception that there will always be criminals, and that their existence is simply the culmination of a number of demographic trends in average incomes, education levels, economic growth, unemployment rates, divorce rates. There is no question that these factors correlate with crime levels but they are not in themselves the 'causes' of crime. There are factors that can give us a better correlation to crime such as:
1. Mental efficacy
2. Self esteem
And using crime as a measure of productivity is really a poor measure. Consider that a good parent is not one that doesnt refrain from abusing their children. Hopefully we have higher standards than that. It is understandable to have some concern for the right of parents to have and raise children by their own standards and judgement, but is there not a public risk concern to also consider. Is there not a reason to believe that parents need training, that any self-indulgent approach to parenting is likely to do more harm than good, that there are potentially alot of parents having children for the wrong reasons, or that pregnancy was entirely unexpected. Is this the basis for sound parenting?

Good parenting really starts with good personal character. There are several keys for preparing to be good parents:
1. Good values: We have to understand that we convey values through our words and actions, and they should be consistent
2. Security: We should offer a secure and comfortable environment for living - not just financially
3. Respect: We should recognise and respect the individuality and rights of the individual to the extent that their actions convey sensible behaviour.
4. Communication: We should be able to have a meaningful and effective method of communication with other people before we attempt to develop one with a child.
5. Empathy: This is the culmination of respect and understanding the needs of the child. This understanding can come from personal experience (as a child), education or analysis of empirical evidence.
6. Love: There should be a deep seated love for the child which will stem from self-love.

I think when a person can display these values then there is a basis for a healthy family environment. Of course the prospect for a healthy family environmnent is more likely when there are 2 parents. Children are pretty resilient despite poor values and inadequate preparedness for parenting. There are however a number of reasons why children might not get a fertile growth environment:
1. Negative affirmation: Poor values might be reinforced by all role models
2. Lack of standards of comparison: The child would benefit if they have some exposure to good values which they can compare with poor, so they might understand right from wrong.
3. Lack of intervention: The child would benefit from government policies that sought to intervene where their is evidence of child neglect, whether in terms of abuse, provision of support or education. I dont think governments perform this role very well.