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Nationalised bedtime?

The nanny state is not the solution for the problem of irresponsible parenting

Artillery Row

Will we one day look back on the early 2020s as the “bad old days”, when children were expected to brush their own teeth? The Labour Party certainly seems to think so. In response to an apparent crisis in British children’s dental hygiene — recent statistics show that the proportion of five-year-olds with visible tooth decay has actually fallen from 30.9% in 2008 to 23.7% in 2022 — Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting took to the airwaves last week to announce Labour’s plans to introduce state-sponsored toothbrushing in schools. 

In fairness to Streeting, it’s true that dental decay is the top cause of childhood hospital admission for five- to nine-year-olds in the UK — but Britain’s dental deterioration is just one example of the concerning decline in basic skills amongst school children. 90% of British reception teachers report at least one child in their class who is not toilet trained, and 91% report at least one child in their class who lacks basic language skills. A similar proportion of teachers report dealing with students who cannot feed themselves independently. 

A pernicious blend of modern life and cradle-to-grave welfarism has created a generation of children ill-equipped for schooling

The response from politicians is always the same — more state spending, and more obligations on teachers. Proponents of greater state intervention in child-rearing will argue that this decline in basic faculties is inevitable in a world of dual-income households. With mum and dad chained to their desks, is it any wonder that they can’t afford to set aside the two minutes needed to teach their nippers about proper dental hygiene? 

In fact, British parents are probably spending more time with their children than ever before. Statistics from the Economist show that British mothers spend more than triple the time with their children than they did in 1965, with an even bigger proportional growth amongst fathers. 

“That’s not the point!” say the Starmerites, “What’s the alternative? Just leave unlucky children to suffer for the sins of their parents? Like it or not, schools must now pick up where parents leave off.”

The idea that the only alternative to state-mandated toothbrushing is “[letting] kids’ teeth rot” is the kind of one-track thinking that we should expect from a political class for whom “get the state to do it” is now the reflexive response. 

By the same logic, one might choose to remedy a heroin addiction by simply taking more heroin. To be sure, a needle in the arm will offer some relief from the shaking — unfortunately, it will also build a deep-seated reliance, and wreak havoc on the body. Labour’s teacher-led toothbrushing will make the effects of bad parenting worse, not better. 

As we outsource more and more basic parenting duties to the state, we can expect to see further abnegation of parental responsibility. Clearly, many parents already expect teachers to pick up the slack. The November 2023 story of a teacher who was expected to change a six-year-old student’s nappies is sadly not an isolated incident. Nor is the response from the child’s mother, who told teachers at the school that, “he’s at school it’s your problem now.”

What’s more, all available evidence suggests that the state is terrible at parenting – which shouldn’t surprise us. After all, how can a teacher, presiding over a class of thirty ill-behaved primary school children, be expected to provide the individual care, attention, and understanding that a parent can offer? 

And this is to say nothing of the effect that imposing these additional responsibilities on teachers will have on the education sector more broadly. As teachers are asked to take on more and more pastoral care responsibilities, is it any wonder that we face a crisis in retention? It should come as no surprise that there are precious few graduates willing to change nappies, brush teeth, and wade through mountains of paperwork for a sub-standard wage. 

So why is this happening — and what can we do about it? The answer isn’t as simple as dual-income households — child-rearing has changed beyond recognition since the days of our parents and grandparents. 

By hook or by crook, the British must rediscover the lost art of parenting

For example, fewer children now live near their grandparents – even as study after study shows that grandparental involvement in child-rearing has a hugely positive impact on both children and parents. At the same time, 66% of British children started using tablets such as iPads by the age of five; 48% spend at least an hour a day on these devices. Today’s children aren’t allowed to stray as far from home as their parents were, and aren’t given as many organic learning opportunities – our modern culture of risk-aversion simply won’t allow it.

With all of this in mind, a clearer picture begins to emerge. A pernicious blend of modern life and cradle-to-grave welfarism has created a generation of children ill-equipped for schooling, and a generation of parents who are far too complacent about that fact. Families are moving further away from the support networks which would once have supplemented parental attention, while increasingly relying on iPad screens as a substitute. With official statistics reporting that 2.9 million British families are now headed by a lone-parent – 84% of whom are lone mothers -, family breakdown is also undoubtedly a piece of the parenting puzzle. 

It doesn’t have to be this way. The decline of basic skills amongst British children is not an inexorable fact of modern life; it is the unfortunate result of social, political, and economic decisions. 

Rather than throwing ever-more money at ever-worse state provision, we should seek to create conditions in which parents are able to spend more and better time with their children, while providing guidance and support networks for struggling young parents. That means high-quality parenting classes which teach new parents the basics; it also means expecting certain minimum standards from children before they’re able to undertake full-time schooling. 

Whatever it means, the status quo simply isn’t sustainable. By hook or by crook, the British must rediscover the lost art of parenting.

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