Friday, 3 August 2007

A Privileged Childhood?

It is remarkable that within a couple of generations the kind of childhood and upbringing which I enjoyed should now be seen as simply one alternative among many ways of "doing family". This change of perspective is even more surprising given the great advantages and privileges which such a family life gave me. This piece is not intended as a self-indulgent tribute to my parents: they had their faults as all parents do. No! The question of how good or poor an individual family is is neither here nor there - it is irrelevant in the battle for how we see the family in these days. Rather, what I want to point out is that there were many features of my family life that would have been seen as utterly ordinary and simply expected. My argument is that such features are no longer quite so ordinarily seen and that we are the poorer for it. What was that upbringing and were its advantages?

* I lived in the same home as my mother and father throughout my entire childhood and teenage years. The stability this gave me is incalculable: a dad to watch and to model myself on in many ways; somebody who showed me what it was to be a man even when he didn't put it in words. So much is caught rather than taught.

* I had a mother who was truly a homemaker - not a woman of leisure but one whose sleeves were rolled up. She was at home when we were young and even in the early years at school. Because of her we always went to school fed and on time. Because of her we always had family dinners every evening at the table. She could have pursued a career outside the home but choice, tradition and need meant that she was there for us.

* I had parents who put us first. It was only later, as an adult that I found out that when there was not enough food to go round mum would go the day without to ensure that we children and dad had enough.

* I had the firm discipline much needed by a young boy. I was taught right from wrong and when I decided to disobey I occasionally felt the consequences on my backside. But, I knew my dad loved me and that there was a consistency about the discipline even if I did not like it at the time.

* I had parents who felt they had to work hard to give me a good education. This is why I've never forgotten our family's first set of encyclopedias or the parental teaching done in holidays or that my mum and dad were always at school parents evenings.

*I had a father who talked with me about things consequential and inconsequential until the cows came home.

* I am very grateful that there were two parents. For me to have one loving parent would have been wonderful but it would have been so hard on them (and on me). As it was they were there to strengthen and encourage each other and to bear burdens that would have been intolerable otherwise.

Do policymakers and others see that my childhood was privileged, although I was brought up by immigrant parents in one of the poorest boroughs in East London? Do I, like so many government ministers and others feel guilty because of this privilege? Do I have to bend over backwards to say that all shapes of family are equally advantageous to adults and children? Of course not! I want the same privileges and advantages for my children and for all of my neighbours. I do not want anybody to foolishly and voluntarily put themselves through the kind of difficult life I never had. I wryly smile at the idea that parenting is the kind of job that can be done as well by one as by two. I don't look smugly or patronisingly at one parent families. Indeed, many of them will tell us just how hard being a single parent is. They come into existence for many sad reasons - bereavement, abuse, unfaithfulness and foolishness. But don't, in your mind's eye, recast the model of the family because of them. By doing this we condemn others to the belief that there is no ideal and to the reality of bearing burdens that God never designed to be borne by one.

Most of all it is God that I thank for all of the advantages that my background has given me. And it is he to whom I will answer for the way in which I have used them.