You can’t legislate for love. Sad though it may be, frustrating as it often is, whether or not we love one another isn’t something that can be written into law. It is ironic that our society – which allows for quickie divorces and which just this weekend conducted gay weddings for the first time – should be so blind to this simple fact. We subscribe to a dogma of ‘what the heart wants’ when it comes to the coupling and, to borrow a phrase, ‘conscious uncoupling’ that we see about us. And yet, when it comes to people’s relationships with their children, we’re unable to follow our own logic. Instead we try to regulate for feelings.
So it is that our Government, in what it clearly considers its infinite wisdom, wants to enact a ‘Cinderella law’. Under the terms of the proposed legislation parents could face up to ten years in prison for ‘emotional neglect’. We’re not talking about beating or starving your children – this is judicial intervention for parents who have failed to love their kids adequately.
Of course it is sad when a parent struggles to find, and to show, affection. It can leave, as a colleague of mine put it, “a gaping void” in children’s lives. It can be a curse. To be fair, for many, it can also be a spur – albeit one that rarely leads to satisfaction. But there is nothing that the state can do to fix that failing. A parent unwilling or unable to love their child is a cause for mourning, not litigation.
The fact that we as a society consider such a move necessary is an indictment of our values and of our very modern inability to cope with the everyday realities of complex emotions. We have fallen into a bi-polar hysteria about our children – which dictates that parents and the state must battle for control and culpability when it comes to kids and which tries to ignore (indeed is often suspicious of) the messy and multi-faceted layers in-between.
There have always been parents who have difficult, conflicted and problematic relationships with their children. But when young people are raised within the context of a wider, extended family – and within a community that is meaningfully involved in one another’s lives – an unloving mother or father can be mitigated by an adoring aunt, uncle, family friend or grandparent.
Nuclear families may often be able to raise their young in perfect emotional stability. Indeed a nuclear family is a pretty fundamental first step along the way. But to be necessary is not to be sufficient. And with the infrastructure of the extended clan stripped out – through a toxic mixture of familial breakdown, geographic mobility and displacement by the state – a vacuum remains. Many young families are left to feel their way with only the state for a guide. And when they get lost, the state takes the only kind of action it really understands – it cajoles and punishes them with the law. Where once the frailty and failings of a bad parent could be recognised and compensated for by other adults, now children are faced with a stark and unappealing choice: Mummy or Social Services.
We won’t fix ‘emotional neglect’ with new laws but we might help if we started repealing some. Let’s clear away the knee-jerk bureaucracy and micro-management that we have built up around our kids. Let’s aim to ensure that children have the opportunity to be cherished not just by their parents but by their extended families, by their priests, by their teachers and their neighbours too. Let’s push back against the culture of paranoia that paints every stranger as a danger – and let’s stop telling our children that if they can’t get what they need from Mummy and Daddy then the law is their only hope. Hillary Clinton likes to say that it “takes a village to raise a child”, she (and the African tribes whose proverb she paraphrases) is right. What it doesn’t take is a state.