The eternal we owe you

Parents' Duties, Children's Debts

November 15, 1996

The United Kingdom has no family policy as such. But the politics of the 1990s have endorsed, extended and reshaped the role of families as the chief resource in providing and purchasing care for children and elderly people. While the pace of change has quickened and transformed British society, with dramatic change occurring in the labour market and in family life, "the family" has simultaneously become the ideological totem for continuity and stability. Chameleon-like, the family is both changed and unchanging. What makes this possible is the continued allegiance, at least among the middle and older generations of women, to altruism and a sense of duty with respect to the care of children and the cross-generational transmission of money, goods and services.

Reflecting the political emphasis throughout the 1990s on individual responsibility and self-reliance, Parents' Duties, Children's Debts underlines the discontinuities but also the continuities in public policy with respect to children and to the care of elderly people. The book reviews major social policy legislation implemented in these fields during the 1980s and 1990s in the context of severe retrenchment of public expenditure.

One of the book's strengths lies in its generational perspective. Integrating a consideration of parents' "duties" to children and children's repayment of "debts" to their parents in adulthood, the authors remind us that childhood is a status we relinquish only when our parents die and is not simply a process of becoming or being a child. The book considers the implications of the introduction of marketisation, contractualisation and managerialism into community care. Drawing heavily on the research of Janet Finch and Jennifer Mason, it suggests these changes rob the parent-child bond of its social and moral character, based as it is upon the negotiation of everyday life as a process rather than as a set of moral principles and political maxims.

The book also sets the responsibility for care in the context of feminist concerns about the gendered nature of caring and considers intergenerational reciprocity in the context of the changing position of women in society.

While considerable attention is paid to adult caring and to the problems community care raises for the cared-for, there is much less discussion of the phenomenon of child rearing. There is also no reference to the demographic imbalance between the growing numbers of elderly people compared with the relative scarcity of young people nor to the relative disadvantage of the latter group with respect to the distribution of income. But this omission reflects the traditional concern of British childcare policy with children in need and children in trouble: the protection of the few rather than the welfare of the many.

Nonetheless several chapters illuminate the diverse conditions under which parents undertake their responsibilities. One author addresses the issue of changing family forms and the consequences of the 1991 Child Support Act. The act's effect is to reinforce biological ties between nonresident fathers and their children to the detriment of the material interests of their subsequent stepfamily responsibilities. The book also indicates the contradictory nature of social policy. One chapter deals with the increased control over reproduction, while another, on the 1989 Children Act, emphasises the aim of partnership between parents and local authorities in cases of child protection.

Given British social policy's piecemeal nature, this wide-ranging book brings together disparate policy areas and provides an excellent, concise and analytical overview.

Julia Brannen is reader in the sociology of the family, University of London.

Parents' Duties, Children's Debts: The Limits of Policy Intervention

Editor - Hartley Dean
ISBN - 1 85742 298 8
Publisher - Arena
Price - £29.50
Pages - 188

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