I think it was Martin Broken Leg who popularised the native American saying that bringing up a child is too important a matter to be left to the parents; it is a matter for the whole tribe.
When one hears it said for the first time, it can hit one as a blindingly obvious truth, but the way we bring up children in Britain today is a million miles from achieving it. If the whole tribe – or community – does care for its children, then every adult watches to make sure that children are safe when they play. Every adult stops children bullying or vandalising. Every adult helps to teach children to become responsible members of the community and to continue the tradition of mutual care. And everyone can rely on the tribe to share in providing care for its members when they reach old age. Idyllic? Idealistic? There are communities where these things actually are important to everyone.
In Britain, we tend to leave bringing children up to the parents, often supported by members of their extended families and often making use of organised systems such as playgroups or childminding when help is needed. But whatever help ordinary parents need, the ultimate responsibility for their children falls on them. It is not shared.
Indeed, if others try to intervene by comforting a child or telling a child off, their actions can be seen as intrusive, as if they were implying criticism of the parents, who may give the interfering adult an earful for trying to stop their child acting antisocially or for undermining their parental authority. At worst, the intervening adult may be suspected of an unhealthy interest in the child.
We tend to rely on very small networks of family and friends, quite unlike the large families of the nineteenth century or the settled networks of intermarried families of the rural communities of the past. Families are therefore liable to be more vulnerable to stress and breakdown.
When there is breakdown and a child has to be removed from its family, the local authority is then expected to act as the corporate parent and to provide substitute care. It is not that the whole community rallies round in the native American tradition. The job is delegated to a local authority department, and its paid professional agents – social workers, foster carers or residential staff – act on behalf of the wider community. Far from the wider community offering support, they often single such children out for criticism and the children, although being victims of their circumstances, are picked out to suffer discrimination.
And when they leave care, they are on their own, having to find their way in the world. It is no wonder that a high proportion of care leavers end up in prison, or with mental health problems, or with unplanned pregnancies, or in abusive relationships.
In order to make the point, the picture has been simplified. Of course, there are lots of caring people around, there is often good aftercare, and there are looked after children who succeed. But overall, the figures show that we fail. We need to find new answers.
As is often the case, some of the new answers which help the most vulnerable groups may also be of help to the less vulnerable and more successful members of society. Our view is that we need to look at the social networks which succeed, analyse why they do, and see whether they can be strengthened and replicated.
Keith White’s piece this month speaks of the way that Mill Grove has absorbed three families into its network, sharing everyday activities with them once a week, but offering them a more stimulating life, support and “counselling” in the process.
It is a model which could be shared more widely, but there are plenty of other ordinary activities which could be used more to support parents and involve the community in parenting.
When collecting their children after school, mothers meet and chat at the school gates, for example, overcoming isolation and sharing problems and ideas in the process. Why do they have to wait outside? Why can’t there be a cup of tea in the school hall? It might mean that teachers can’t head for home so quickly, but the involvement of the parents in school life could help parents to appreciate the importance of education, give them a chance to meet teachers. provide an opportunity for everyone to network, and so strengthen the community.
Home start has helped thousands of parents by using volunteers, backed up by qualified staff, to support parents of young children going through difficult times. Why do we have to wait for times to be difficult? If we live in an age when there is less support from extended families because the population is more mobile, why can’t we organise volunteers to link with the Health Visitor system so that every parent has access to a friend-cum-mentor, or even a circle of parents who can support each other?
Children who leave care often have very limited social networks. Why can’t circles of support be arranged, so that they have the chance to meet up with someone every day until they have settled and created their own networks? They may need practical help with filling in job applications or budgeting, but they may just want to chat.
Or again, why can’t local authorities create ongoing communities of care leavers, which enable survivors to help those setting up independently for the first time? Such systems would need support by having a base or a team of paid staff to keep them going, but they could help many cope with the difficult transition to adulthood.
Since the number of children in the public care is relatively small, why can’t every one of them be allocated to a senior member of the local authority or a Councillor to act as an extra link or mentor? It would be good for the staff and elected members to come face to face with the people for whom they plan, draw up accounts or appoint staff.
A lot of these ideas have been tried and could be extended. They all rely on people relating to each other. There are many forces driving us apart and undermining relationships in today’s style of living, whether it is the use of cars, or housing built for nuclear families, or the way we sit before computers. We need to find ways of reversing the trend, so that we have stronger communities. In an age of materialism, people are beginning to appreciate the importance of quality of life again. Let’s do our utmost to make sure that our communities are fit for children.