Tessa Blackstone

Putting Kids First

It Takes a Village

By

Simon & Schuster 356pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

This is a strange book: odd title; peculiar mishmash of personal anecdotes, scientific evidence and folksy homilies about how to bring up children; and strange in its lack of any discernible structure. It has no bibliography and no index, and its chapter headings are sometimes obscure. Yet for all that, it is not a bad book. It is readable and eminently clear in the message it is trying to convey – a message which deserves to be taken seriously. In our social policies, in our family relationships, in our child-rearing practices, the needs of children must be better understood and taken more seriously.

For many of us on the other side of the Atlantic, the United States is full of paradoxes in its attitudes towards children. On the one hand, there is a pervasive view that American children are spoilt: they are perceived as overindulged at home and undisciplined at school; loud, rude to adults, inclined to be unpleasantly precocious and overprovided with material possessions. On the other hand, there is a perception that Americans neglect their children, and that social systems and legal structures are even worse than our own for protecting children adequately. For example, when cases are reported of small children who are happy with their adoptive parents being torn away, as a result of court clashes, by natural parents reasserting their rights on some legal nicety, there is a sense of horror and shock in Britain, where the interests of the child would be put first by the courts.

Whether things really are worse in America is a moot point. Perhaps they are. Nevertheless, we in Britain have plenty to learn from Hillary Clinton’s book. As a lawyer with a long-standing interest in children’s rights, she has wide experience on which to draw. For example, she argues that in the USA it should be more difficult than it is for natural parents to overturn adoptions. She also draws extensively on her own childhood experience, which seems to have been happy and certainly conducive to her later success: ‘My parents made learning part of our daily activities, from storytelling and reading aloud to discussing current events at the dinner table, to calculating run averages for Little League Pitchers.’ Throughout the book they are used as models of good parenting. She also draws on her later experience as a mother with a demanding full-time job as a lawyer.

Some of her more lofty readers may find some of the ‘Bill holds the baby’ stories nauseating, and detect the politician’s wife at work painting a picture of a ‘loving Dad’ for the wider purpose of winning votes. Accusations of this kind would, I think, be unduly cynical. Many of her anecdotes are designed to point up the conflicts and dilemmas of modern parenthood. They speak to the countless couples juggling the demands of parenting with jobs and their other responsibilities. They provide a human dimension in a book that is clearly designed to reach a wide audience.

The family values debate is not addressed head-on, though it is fairly clear where the author stands. She is far too intelligent and worldly-wise to think that it is possible, or even desirable, to put the clock back to some idyllic past when children grew up in happy and secure nuclear families, mothers stayed at home and fathers were breadwinners. She asserts her sensible view that the quality of loving care a child receives has little or no relationship to whether its mother has a job outside the home or not. On the subjects of divorce and illegitimacy, she is a little more ambiguous. Many children live in a wide variety of family structures and survive perfectly well. But more adults should think hard about the effect on their children of divorce and separation. Implicitly and sometimes explicitly the message is that more couples should try to bury their differences in the interests of their children.

Government support for families with children is certainly weaker in the USA than in most European countries; there is, for example, no child benefit. Mrs Clinton would like to see more of it in the interests of children. Her policy prescriptions range from better maternity leave and child care to more innovative programmes to help prevent children from falling behind at school. There is nothing new that we have not heard before. All the more reason, then, to get on with change and to fight the anti-government bigots who refuse to accept that public policies need to be put in place to support families in the uncertain world in which we live today.

Strange as it may be in some respects, it is hard to fault this book either for its underlying analysis or for most of its solutions. There is a manifest failure not just in America but in all modern societies to invest in our future by caring for and educating our children so that they can survive u n damaged and reach their full potential. Hillary Clinton’s solutions are derived from her own wisdom and common sense, and represent the best of liberal America.

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