Books: The Mother and Father of a Lost Opportunity ; Anecdotes and Press-Cuttings Won't Stop the Moralists Who Make the Running Now in Social Policy. by Winifred Robinson

Article excerpt

The Parent Trap: children, families and the new morality by Maureen Freely Virago, pounds 10.99, 245pp READING MAUREEN Freely's polemic is rather like being accosted by someone at a party who bends your ear. It's something in the prose style, spare and stripped down, so the short sentences gallop along at a tremendous pace. Freely's aim is to demonstrate "how our panic about the family is not based on evidence that would stand up in court". She hopes to rebut the arguments of the new moralists who blame lazy, selfish parents for social breakdown and seek to stop the rot by re- educating and, where necessary, punishing them.

In reply, she argues that the problems have been exaggerated; they stem not from wicked individuals but from the effects of disadvantage and rapid social change. They can be cured only by a revolution in the workplace to take the pressure off harassed parents, and by large-scale community- based programmes to empower the poor.

Social affairs is a notoriously difficult arena. Often the statistics comparing then and now do not exist or, if they do, are open to a range of interpretations. Even so, dialectics like Freely's usually rely on a solid argument based, in part at least, on indisputable facts.

This is where The Parent Trap falls down. Freely has pretty much abandoned data, preferring instead to concentrate on newspaper coverage of the crisis in the family. She sees the media as all- powerful. Its accounts have dominated the debate with a distorted picture that has robbed individual parents of confidence.

For anyone who takes a daily newspaper, the inevitable re- telling of old stories that this approach entails is as tedious as being cornered by that party bore. And the analysis just is not sharp enough. For example, Freely insists that the contrasting cases of Diane Blood and Mandy Allwood persuaded many people in this country that "our government is allowing... the wrong people to have children, while actively obstructing those who should be having them instead."

When it comes to fertility treatment, our anxiety is often the one Prince Charles identified when he spoke about GM crops: we feel a deep unease that we are meddling with the sacred. But nature has always allowed "the wrong people" to have children.

Where interesting ideas crop up, they dangle undeveloped. Freely examines what she calls the cast of stock characters employed by the media to explore family problems. …