The woes of parenting

Adam Harbinson
Adam Harbinson

Like most parents and grandparents I have to admit that I am fearful for the future of our civilisation, given the disintegration of family life as we know it.

It’s not just that more than half of children are born to unmarried couples, nor is the main concern that increasing numbers will be brought up by same-sex couples (currently thought to be about 8,000 children). It’s that there are now over two million one-parent families in the UK.

Having said that, my work constantly brings me into contact with youngsters who we tend to see as ‘hard to reach’. I prefer to use the term ‘easy to miss’ because for whatever reason, they choose to detach themselves from mainstream community life, and become invisible. The interesting thing is that while most of them come from broken homes, not all do and there is evidence that it is often the case that it can be more damaging to grow up in a home that resembles a perpetual war zone than in a loving home with only one parent.

It remains to be seen what the children who populate same-sex couples will turn out like, and much as I personally dislike the concept, I hope old die-hards like me will be pleasantly surprised.

I must quickly add that I am not making a moral judgement, not at all, it’s the cultural shift I struggle with. God knows, two of my own children head up single-parent families and so I well understand the enormous personal sacrifices they are called upon to make.

What I am trying to say is that there seems to be an underlying principle at play here: a ‘law of nature’ maybe that can provide the glue to hold fragile familial relationships together and give the offspring their best hope for a happy, fulfilled and stable life. It’s an old Jewish proverb: there are only two lasting bequests we can hope to give our children. One is roots that go deep into the soil so they will always know where home is; the other, wings to fly off and put into practice what they have been taught.

For good and loving parents, the roots part of that proverb is the easy one. It can be reduced down to loving and affirming our children, being a good example, giving correction in love and never in anger, and providing a secure environment in which they don’t have to perform to be accepted.

It’s the wings part that we’re sometimes not good at. John Powell talks about ‘arrested emotional development’ caused by apron strings, or ‘smother love,’ promoting excessive dependence on the beliefs and decisions of others. We need to allow them to make their mistakes and to assume responsibility for them. We must encourage them – and I have found this very difficult – to develop into mature, independent and responsible adults, and that sometimes means standing back, not being over-protective, for such children are not being prepared to accept hardships.

There’s a principle that I tried hard to weave into my life as a father when my four were small: ‘Train a child in the way that he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it.’

Thankfully, they have turned out fine... so far. I’m not complacent, for the oldest is only 42!