Sunday, 23 March 2008

People Should Need a Licence to Have a Child

I have been reading today that schools are encountering ever greater problems with children who constantly throw tantrums because they cannot get what they want or are told they have to do something they are not keen on. This is very baby-like behaviour and by school age it is anticipated that children should have grown out of such approaches. Problems for the schools are exacerbated by parents treating their children like spoilt princes(-esses) and even getting violent with teachers if they dare criticise their darlings. Now we have a lot of things going on here that I have touched on before. One is the madly consumerist society that we live in the UK in which people equate happiness with the newest and most exciting consumption. This goes for adults as well as children, hence the massive debt so many Britons are in and children with more toys, clothes, food than they know what to do with and yet retaining a desire for yet more. The people who are parents of primary school now were predominantly born between 1968-88 so lived in a time of consumption but of less scale than now and certainly without the huge range of electrical items and all the tie-in products, twenty channels to watch and so on. All parents through history raise their own children the way they were raised, but in the past two decades society has advanced far more in terms of temptations and expectations than it ever did say 1948-68 or 1968-88. When I started school in 1972 we were still using books printed on rationed paper during the Second World War. Now children feel deprived if they lack an interactive whiteboard in their classroom.

The second thing is that in the UK there is a sense that one's business is no-one else's business even if it impinges on them. People get angry if you tell them to slow down when driving or to put their mobile phone away, or whatever. They believe in an ultimate right to do what they want to do without challenge even when it puts other people's lives at risk and certainly when it 'only' disrupts the learning of other children in the class. Of course not all the blame can be laid at parents. England in particular keeps examining its childern at age of 7, 11, 14, 16, 17, 18 and in common with the rest of the UK, since 1992 has had a very rigid curriculum. So, it is not surprising that children are bored and stressed by staggering from preparation for one exam to the next.

Now a few years back I saw a programme which tried to provoke debate and one week they suggested that children should be considered a luxury item and rather than parents being given child support and other benefits they should actually be taxed for the additional burden they were putting on the state in terms of healthcare and education costs. In the last decade the pattern of childbirth has shifted in this direction with birthrate falling among working class people as it does become too expensive to have children and rising among middle class people as they seek a justification (however weak) for driving a 4 x 4 and they started getting lots more maternity and paternity leave. Children still make up the majority of people living below the poverty line, but the large poor family is steadily dying out.

The key problem seems to be now, not so much whether people have the money or not to raise a child. Estimates for the cost are somewhere between £50,000-£130,000 (€66,500-€72,990; US$101,000- US$262,200) spent on raising a child from ages 0-18. You can add on £13,000 if they do a 3-year course at university and children. In addition the cost of housing means the average child will be living with their parents into their mid-30s even if they go away for some time for study, they will be unable to earn sufficient to live away for many years. So children are expensive. The key problem, though, is that the bulk of people who have children have no experience or training in how to look after them. If you want to work as a childminder or as a foster carer you have to undergo loads of scrutiny about your background, about your health and habits (such as whether you smoke or are obese). If you want to adopt a child you again have to be thoroughly scrutinised (they will look at if your marriage is going to last) and go through a probationary period with the child before they become yours. Yet if you create a child yourself no-one checks up on whether you are competent to raise them.

We know a lot now about raising children in the heavily consumerist society we find ourselves in. There are books and programmes all over the place to teach you how, just no compulsion. Is it any surprise that parents get it wrong and society pays the price of the screwed up, ill-disciplined children they raise. The UK has taken some steps in the right direction, for example, the famous case of Patricia Amos, jailed in 2002 for 60 days for permitting her daughter to go truant from school. Now, I know British prisons are full but once some more have been built we need to start increasing the number of incompetent parents who are punished. Of course by the time their children are teenagers it is really too late, which is why the state has to monitor things right from shortly after conception. Now, before people say that this is an intrusion into the privacy of the family home, who is it who has to pay for all the damage and crime that unruly children commit? Not the family, but the rest of us who have no control over how the child is brought up.

How my scheme would work is that the moment a woman realised she was pregnant she would have to register the conception with the local authorities and alongside any pre-natal classes she would have to begin to attend parenting classes. If there is a father on the scene he would have to attend to. If he did not then he would be barred from living in the same house as the child when it was born. Bad fathers are an even worse problem than bad mothers especially when it comes to raising thuggish boys. This is not a class issue, spoilt upper and middle class men charging around drunk in 4x4s on their mobile phones are just as remiss as a chav petty criminal, though of course neither would see what they were doing as wrong. This comes back to the huge malaise for the UK, people unwilling to live up to their responsibilities.

The parents passing the parenting course would be granted a licence and at the birth of their child would be permitted to take it home with them. Parents who fail the course or do not attend will have the child removed from them at birth and handed to foster carers. They would have 1 year to complete the course if they wanted their child back otherwise if they failed to do so in that time the child would go for adoption. There is a huge demand for babies to adopt and of course the adopting parents would have to go through the same tests that natural parents would have to.

Relationships break up and parents then meet up with other partners. If this happened then the prospective step-mother/father would also have to be tested and receive a licence before being allowed to live in the same house and their step-children. This would stop random adults who fancy a single parent being thrust into being a parent themselves, something they may be totally incapable of doing. In addition a lot of bad experiences for children come from step-parents, so far more monitoring is needed.

Right, once everyone is licenced and has received the basic training in how to be a parent, then at anyone time they can have their licence revoked and lose the child, if they behave in an inappropriate or neglectful way. This would ease up the removal of children for difficult situations. The destination of the child could be to properly licenced grandparents or other relatives or into adoption. In addition, equivalent to, say, HGV driving licences, at the stage which the child reaches 11, the parents have to undergo teenager training as this phase is far harder than raising a child up until then and most parents have no clue how to cope with teenagers. If the parents pass then they keep the child, otherwise it spends 1 year in care and if they have not passed the test by then, it goes for adoption. You could argue that if a parent passes for one child they can retain the licence for subsequent children reaching 11, but I would advocate if there was more than a 3-year gap they be re-tested as so much develops in terms of drugs and sex and consumption in such a short period now that people need to have their skills refreshed. Of course both parents would have to pass or be barred access to the child. Too many fathers are neglectful of teenage children, especially boys and need to have their attention focused on the continued need to work with them for the sake of the family and society. In addition if teenage boys and girls see the pressure that parenting puts them under they may be dissuaded from creating children in their teens too. Of course the state can set an age limit for the licence so meaning that any child born to a pre-sixteen child would be unlicenced and go immediately into state care. Children born to girls of that age have very little future and the mothers themselves are put in an impossible position.

When my grandfather learned to drive in the 1920s you simply wrote to an office in London and applied for a driving licence which they sent to you. Nowadays the driving test is more thorough than for the bulk of the 20th century with both theory and practical tests. It is less rigorous than those of our continental neighbours and this may be why we are plagued with so many poor drivers. No-one would argue that anyone should be permitted to be allowed to drive a car without having undergone a thorough test and passed it fully. In addition, for certain vehicles like heavy goods vehicles (HGV) they have to be retested at regular intervals. Why then do we permit people to have children who can cost even more to society and do as much if not more damage without having to undergo any testing or licencing?

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