The Crisis In Parenting

on Saturday, 05 July 2003. Posted in Issue 39 The Crisis in Parenting, 2001

Bill Toner, SJ

February 2001



In a recent survey in a Dublin suburb afflicted by drugs, 100 adolescents were asked in a questionnaire how the family could help young people to avoid getting involved with drugs?   Of these, 28 stated that parents could help by knowing where there children were and who they were with, looking after children properly, keeping of the street and limiting their freedom.  Another 23 suggested that parents could talk to children about drugs.  The authors of the survey conclude:  “Of those responding, over half (of adolescents) require a greater involvement of parents in their lives.  The perception that young teenagers want more freedom is not borne out by the results of this survey” [1]


The survey highlights the importance of parenting in the context of delinquency of any kind, whether it be drug abuse, joy-riding or vandalism.   There is nothing very surprising about this.   Every Garda, social worker or community activist will confirm this perception, sometimes going so far as to say, “It is the parents who should be locked up”.  Nevertheless, when the decision-makers discuss, say, an anti-drug strategy, help for parents is rarely mentioned.

It is not only in communities affected by drugs or delinquency that parenting is an issue. Today parenting is probably more difficult than it has ever been.  It faces difficulties from a number of   different   trends   and    influences,    some economic,  some  cultural,  and  some  even technological.  To some of these difficulties we now turn.

Parenting and Western Values

In its scale of values, modern Western society assigns a great deal of  value to money and ‘making’ money.   Many things are esteemed insofar as they have monetary value and can be bought and sold on the market for profit.

Sometimes money is prized for its own sake, and perhaps for the security it brings. Yet in general money is valued for the material goods and services it can buy.   And these in turn are valued partly for their own sakes, but also because they bring status.   Status in Ireland is not determined by birth or ‘caste’, but mainly  by ‘conspicuous consumption’, revealed through status symbols such as houses and property ownership, children’s schools, cars, clothes and foreign travel.

As a result of this value system, occupations are generally valued in terms of the income they generate. Voluntary work, as a full-time occupation, is not regarded as highly as paid work.   Parenting is a case in point.    There was a time that staying at home to mind children was considered a more ‘valuable’ activity than it is now.   However it is unlikely that this change in attitude is due to a change in our value system itself.    In the past there was less opportunity for the stay-at-home parent to  find a job, so comparisons did not tend to  get  made between the ‘value’ of parenting and the ‘value’ of a paid job.  But nowadays, with more employment opportunities, many parents will weigh up the benefits to them and their children of one of them staying at home all day, against a possible addition to the family income of, say, £10,000 a year, even after childcare costs and tax.

Most of the extra money is likely to go on a mortgage, and thus any possible compromising of the children’s best interests by going out to work might seem worthwhile, if not essential.   It is mainly the increase in family incomes over the last thirty years that has driven up house prices (in real terms), and increased their size.   Until the 1960s there were prohibitions on married women working in the Civil Service and in many private companies, such as Guinness’s.   This gradually came to be seen as discriminatory, and seems unimaginable today, especially to young people.  At any rate, once sufficient numbers of couples started to work and pool their incomes, this began to put upward pressure on house prices, and other couples were forced to follow suit if they wanted to ‘keep up with the Jones’s’.

Thus many parents are ‘forced’ out to work, whether they like it or not, because the availability of jobs and money fuels the competition for status, particularly in the area of housing, and because it is very difficult for parents (as for anyone else) to opt out of the prevailing value system.   It is most ironic that both parents are under such pressure to work when the wealth generated in our society has never been greater.    The current level of house prices will also inevitably persuade many couples to postpone having children, or perhaps not to have them at all.

Of course there are many other cogs working this particular wheel.   The jobs that are now so freely available are fueled by demand, and demand is fueled by advertising and investment and the drive for economic growth.  Growth is seen as necessary by governments, because improving technology can otherwise wipe out jobs (and our value system doesn’t promote sharing work).  And growth is seen as necessary by investors because otherwise they cannot gain interest on their investments.  Our economic system demands that as many people as possible go out to work, and the problems that creates for parenting are given scant attention.

Not all parenting problems are caused by both parents being out at work all day.  Some of the worst failures of parenting occurs in families where no adult goes out to work.  But for an increasing number of parents the lack of time they have to be with their children is causing them and the children a lot of pain and sometimes more serious problems.  Some parents cope better than others, but there are few people working today who do not regret their inability to spend more time with their children.    In the United Kingdom, one in five children between 5 and 10 is left alone at home during school holidays, and one in six comes home at the end of each school day to an empty house. [2]

Parenting Past and Present

This is not to suggest that it is necessary or even desirable for any parent to do nothing else all day but look after children.   Only in the modern Western world has the ideal of a parent, usually the woman, staying home all day minding children for most of her lifetime, been proposed as a serious option.   Many adults today would ‘go spare’ if they had nothing else to do but mind young children.   It was normal in earlier times in Ireland, as it is in other cultures at the present time, for women to do a lot of work as well as looking after children (sometimes with the help of others).  Women planted and reaped vegetables and crops (often bringing their children with them), milked cows, knitted and spun, ground meal, fed animals, kept the books, managed  staff,  served customers, and cooked and baked for home use or sale. But, significantly, the work was done in and around the home.

What has changed is the separation of work from home.  From the eighteenth century onwards, more and more work moved away from the home, particularly work that society saw as suitable for women.  In many cases the new industries  competed with the work that women formerly did at home, with spinning and knitting being increasingly done in large factories, and women having no choice but to work away from the  home.  Children were often minded at home by older children or other relatives, and then went to work in the factories themselves at an early age.  The slogan of the ‘woman’s place is in the home’ usually arose only when women came into competition with men in the workplace, as happened after the World Wars when men returned from battle and looked for their jobs back. Women still go to work in factories, but the problem of looking after the children is seen as more acute than it was in the 18th or 19th centuries:

Families are smaller now and more scattered, so their are fewer older siblings or relatives to mind younger children.
Parents’ and children’s free time does not coincide.  Increased concern for children’s welfare has led to young children being excluded from paid employment, and school hours are shorter than typical hours worked in industry.
Even after the factories came, many small businesses, such as shops, continued to be operated from home, with the children close by or included in the work.  Most of these small businesses have now gone. There has been a growth in tele-homeworking of course, but homeworkers are often prevented by their contracts from looking after children at the same time.
Compared with former times, only a very small percentage of people now live on small farms, where child-rearing could most easily be combined with work.
More families are breaking down, and parenting/work dilemmas are more acute for lone parents. 
It would of course be a big mistake to think that parenting was better and children more orderly in past centuries than they are today.  In Ireland Nano Nagle and Edmund Rice set up their schools in the late 18th century in response to the sight of hordes of undisciplined children running wild in the slums of Waterford and Cork.   Parenting may be no worse today than it ever was, but in the overall design of our society it is still assigned a much lower priority than it should be.

In the Western world, the ‘economy’, and the interests of industry (or at least of industrialists), have generally taken precedence over parenting and the interests of the family.   If economic growth requires that parents be separated from their children, then so be it.  In the design of working hours, it is the needs of business, not the needs of families, that are taken into account. The total amount of time parents and children spend together has dropped by 40 per cent in a single generation. [3]   According to a recent survey by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, employees in the EU are working harder and in more stressful conditions than before.  Increasing ‘flexibility’ is designed for customer and client needs, rather than employee needs, and lack of predictability in rosters is causing serious problems, especially for women. [4]

But the pursuit of wealth is not the only factor threatening parenting today.  In the next section we turn to examine other forces in our culture which make the task of parents more difficult than it used to be.

Cultural Pressures on Parenting

Apart from the fact that more and more parents have to combine parenting with work, and thus “live like trapeze artists” [5] , our modern culture, in a number of other ways, makes parenting more difficult than it used to be:

Parents are less sure about the rationale for having children.
In former times (and in non-Western cultures today) children were (are) seen as playing an important role in the continuance of a family.  For instance they might be needed for kinship ties, to work in the family business, to look after parents in their own age, or to safeguard an inheritance.   In these situations the interests of extended family, or clan, or tribe assumed importance.   Now the term often used in the West in regard to having a first child is starting a family.  There is still some social pressure regarding the continuance of the family name, and the passing on of property, but the modern family is much more seen as a stand-alone entity.  Children are still wanted by their parents, but they are less needed by them, and the objective of parenting less clear.

·        Families are more isolated and there is less support from the extended family.

In former times [6] it was common for a number of adults and their families to live in close proximity, and families were larger.  Most of the adults and older children took some responsibility for all the children.   Today the close rural communities are fewer, and inner city families have been dispersed to different suburbs.  Child-minders are now in short supply, and so are playmates within the family circle.

·        There is a suspicion of authority, including parental authority.

Since the sixties a strong bias against authority has developed.  Bob Dylan wrote, “Come mothers and fathers throughout the land;  your sons and your daughters are beyond your command”.   With the atrocities and wasted lives of two world wars still in people’s consciousness, people have become less comfortable with the concept of doing something just because someone ‘told’ them to do it.   But those in authority have also become less comfortable about telling others what to do.  Parents are teaching children “not to mind what anybody tells them”, while trying to tell them lots of things themselves.  Overall, children have become more resistant to authority, and parents have become less confident about enforcing it.

·        Children are more conscious of their rights and are more likely to challenge not only adults in general, but their parents.

In the past, children were hardly considered to have any ‘rights’ independent of their parents.    But, the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child, in particular, has now articulated a number of rights, for instance the right to freedom of expression (Art.13), and the right to freedom of association (Art.15).  The Convention is at pains to stress the primary importance of parents’ role and makes various provisos, particularly relating to the “evolving capacities of the child”.  Nevertheless many parents who see their role as ‘benign dictators’ find it hard to accept the flavour of ‘democracy’ in the Convention.  A number of parents have similar difficulties with the concept of ‘Childline’, now found in many countries, through which children may phone a third party to complain about their parents (or other adults).

There is no doubt that the emphasis on children’s rights is essential, especially in the wake of recent disclosures of widespread child abuse.   But some parents will say that it makes parenting more difficult, and that parents are not being given the help they need to bring up their children in a responsible way.  In response to misgivings voiced, the UN Convention Committee has stated that “the Convention focuses primarily on what governments… must do….The Committee does not monitor the behaviour of individual parents.  Nor does the Committee receive complaints from citizens, including children, against individual parents.” [7]

In practice, in Ireland we could do more to show proper respect to children.  For instance, in the medical area, adults’ rights over children’s bodies are taken for granted, and in schools their opinions are rarely sought.  The excuse is made that children don’t know what is best for them, but in fact it is often simply because children are smaller and less sure of themselvesthat adults get away with discriminating against them.  There is a well-known pub in Co. Down that displays the sign, “Unsupervised children will be sold into slavery”.   No doubt many people, even children, will find this amusing, but imagine the outcry if it was applied to some other category of persons?

·        In a liberal society, parents are less comfortable about laying down ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.

Apart from being less comfortable about the exercise of authority, parent are less sure about everything in our post-modern culture, and many do not know what to tell their children.  Penelope Leach comments:

Concepts like right and wrong are out of fashion, the words sometimes trotted out on political platforms, but mostly reserved for sums or multiple-choice questions.  Good judgment is something everyone wants, but nobody wants to be judgmental.  Even values are tricky to handle and usually kept as impersonal as “value for money” or as distanced from individuals as “conservative values”, “Christian values” or perhaps a deprecating “good, old-fashioned values” [8]

The general uncertainty of parents about values may be one of the reasons why places in a school that has a reputation for discipline and firm values are likely to be in demand, even among parents who don’t subscribe to the (usually) religious ethos of the school.  Many parents are delegating the imparting of values to the schools, though all the indications are that this has limited success in inculcating values without back-up from the home.

The uncertainty about, or disregard of, values has not only affected the family, but has invaded the media as well.  The restraints on what can be shown on TV or broadcast on radio become looser by the day, which inevitably puts additional pressures on parents, who have to cope with the impact of explicit material on their children.

·        The materialism of the culture makes children more demanding, while the greater wealth of families makes it harder for parents to say ‘No’.

Nowadays when people start to talk about children, the conversation gets around to the ‘Nike syndrome’ within minutes.   For whatever reason, children feel their identity far more bound up with possessions and status symbols than used to be the case, and peer pressure on the non-conformist can be devastating.    Parents are at a loss to explain the phenomenon or cope with it, but simply debunking peer values does not work. [9]    Moreover, in former times the issue was self-limiting for most parents, because they simply could not afford  the most desirable items.   Now there are a very large number of Irish parents for whom ‘money is no object’ with regard to Christmas presents.   The children know this, and the ‘why?’s become more persistent.

·        For a variety of reasons, parents are more anxious about parenting well; parenting has become more professionalized and competitive.

Like many other things in life that were once taken more casually (such as personal nutrition), parenting has taken on the status of a ‘skill’.  Many areas of life and work have been invaded by ‘experts’ and sometimes (often for sound reasons) professionalized.  Benjamin Spock’s, Baby and Childcare, (1968) was an important milestone.  It rightly called into question many entrenched attitudes regarding child-raising.  But it also highlighted parenting as a skill that parents could be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ at.   Parents became as concerned about their own success as that of their children.  Parents have always asked, “Where did I go wrong?”, but they are more likely to ask it in the post-Spock era.  As in any other area of life, anxiety is a poor guide, particularly in childcare, where it is easily transmitted to the child as lack of confidence.

·        Because parents today generally spend less time with their children, peer influence has become correspondingly greater.

It is reckoned that children get forty per cent less of their parents’ time than they did a generation ago.  More parents are working, and the school day is starting earlier and finishing later.  Children take more and more of their values from their peer group.  While mixing with peers is a valuable part of socialization, there is a also the potential for a ‘Lord of the Flies’ situation. [10]   Without constant input from adults children are liable to engage in bullying, violence, sexism, and ridicule.   Peer influence can become so great that it is impossible for parents to communicate their own norms and values.  Television characters, especially in ‘soaps’,  become a new category of ‘peer’ when parents leave children alone at home or even switch on the TV to keep them quiet.

As peers become the child’s most important reference group, the approval of the parent becomes less significant to them. In some books on parenting, maintaining discipline in the home is represented as a kind of game between parents and children. Parents are advised to devise a programme of sanctions, sometimes described as ‘punitive consequences’, which are applied systematically and consistently for breaches of rules.  Robert MacKenzies popular book, Setting Limits, is an example. [11]   The disturbing thing about this approach is that it pays little attention to what should be the most powerful punishment for a child, - the parent’s disapproval. [12]   Parenting then becomes a power struggle, or even an exercise in ‘Pavlovian’ [13] programming.   MacKenzie makes remarkably little reference to love or affection in the relationship between child and parent.   The most important thing in building parent-child relationships is listening to the child, and unfortunately parents today have little time for this.  If the relationship becomes weak and mutually disrespectful, the parent’s disapproval may not be very important to the child.

·        Family breakdown is more common, and parenting is usually more difficult for a single parent.

Although it is difficult to generalize about the effect on a child of having only one parent, there is a lot of evidence that, in general, parenting is more difficult if carried out alone.  Although family breakdown is on the increase, surveys in Europe have found, ironically, increasing popular support for the view that a child needs a home with both a father and a mother [14] .  Writers on parenting give different reasons for this.  Maureen Gaffney comments:

“Women’s strength is that they are so good, almost too good, at responding to other’s needs.  Fathers are critical, then, not just for rescuing mothers from the ropes after the sixth round with the kids, but also as confidants and advisors.” [15]

Penelope Leach emphasizes the psychological importance to the child of the father, especially in infancy:

“Infants cannot have too much continuous closeness with their mothers…As long as mothering (by somebody) is constant, fathers’ comings and goings, into relatedness and out to adult affairs, offer an important balancing discontinuity and the recurring treat of somebody who is not always available, who is not that mothering person, and who is not like her… As the first year draws on, fathers lure their offspring from the enclosing, rightly dependent relationship with the female parent or parent figure and out towards autonomy…” [16]

·       Corporal punishment is increasingly, and rightly, seen as unfair and ultimately ineffective, but this does mean that parents have to spend more time and effort to achieve desirable behaviour.

Some parents respond to children’s arguments, or ‘talking back’, or simple disobedience by slapping them.  Parents do this for a number of reasons:

they are usually bigger and stronger than the child;

it is sometimes more difficult to reason with a child than with an adult;

children can be very persistent, and parents lose patience;

parents can see themselves as ‘owning their  child’ and having control over it;  in contrast, they would be very slow to hit another person’s child even for the same degree of aggravation.
However an increasing number of people are of the view that hitting a child is the same as hitting anyone else and constitutes an assault.  In a few countries it is illegal to slap a child, and in almost any country excessive slapping could lead to prosecution.  In Ireland there does not currently seem to be a strong movement to outlaw slapping by parents, but it is definitely frowned on more than it used to be, and resorting to it is increasingly viewed as a failure.

The main problems with slapping are that (a)  it does not respect the dignity of the child; (b) it teaches children that ‘might is right’, and can even encourage them to be violent; (c) children often do not understand why they are being slapped; (d) children can carry resentment of being slapped ‘unfairly’ right through their lives in a way that is not true of other sanctions;  (e) slapping does not teach children whytheir behaviour is unacceptable, but only what the consequences of the behaviour are; (f) in their teenage years children can start to slap back; (g) when parents start to slap they can easily lose control and do serious damage, especially through slapping children around the head.

Slapping is often done out of frustration, when parents feel completely helpless in coping with a situation any other way.  Parents can often walk away from confrontations with adults, but they cannot do this with their children.  The realization that slapping children is wrong and counter-productive is a considerable advance for society, but it means that parents require greater patience and better ‘motivational’ skills.  Slapping is part of an ‘authoritarian’ style of parenting which can produce timid and dependent children.  But if it is not replaced by some other response the outlook can be nearly as bad.  Children of ‘permissive’ or ‘laissez-faire’ parents who maintain no discipline tend to be immature, low in self-reliance and self-control, and not particularly socially responsible.

·        The ‘sexual revolution’, which began in the 1960s, means that parents face major concerns at the start of adolescence (which begins earlier each decade).

Most parents will admit that raising children, especially girls, through adolescence has become a nightmare.   The fear of many parents is pre-marital pregnancy, and to some extent disease, rather than sexual activity in itself.  Although premarital teenage births have soared, they show little sign of becoming totally acceptable to adult society in general, hence the nervousness of parents.  However there are still many parents who are just as uneasy  about  the impact of premarital and casual sex on the psychological and spiritual development of the young person.  This is one reason why many parents are bitterly opposed to making contraceptives available to young people.

Through the ages different societies have responded to the sexual awakening of their children in different ways. In some societies young girls are almost literally locked up in their teenage years.  In former times in Ireland, while teenage girls were given a lot of freedom, there were incredibly strong social and religious pressures on both girls and boys to refrain from premarital sexual activity.   Most Irish teenagers of the 1950s literally feared hellfire even for having sexual fantasies, let alone putting them into practice.

The problem for Irish parents today is that they do not know what to tell their children in regard to sex.  It is difficult in today’s highly sexualized culture to convince young people that sex outside marriage is ‘wrong’, so the emphasis from parents is on being ‘careful’ rather than chaste.   One writer captures the dilemma of the parent in a liberal society:

“We must be able to express our fears about their sexual behaviour not as fears about sex itself but about the unhappiness that sex at the wrong time or with the wrong person can bring.” [17]

Thus in the absence of clear and confident norms of their own, it is difficult for parents to answer the “questions that torment teenagers, caught between intense peer-pressure and gossip on the one hand, and an unformed or nervous conscience on the other” [18]

Of course many Irish parents do enforce strict controls on their children in relation to attending discos and so on, but where internalized moral restraints are weak or absent there are bound to be ‘casualties’

·        The possibility of alcohol and other drug abuse by their children is a major worry for parents.

Surveys indicate that the average age for Dublin pupils to start experimenting with cannabis is now as young as 12 years.   About 40% of Irish 15-16 year olds smoke cannabis occasionally (compared with, say, about 5% in Portugal and Finland).  Cannabis abuse is serious for school-children because it interferes with concentration and it also introduces them to the world of illegal drugs.  In an Eastern Health Board Survey 18% of students admitted they had experimented with ‘hard’ drugs.  Ireland has the highest rate of drug-related deaths in the European Union.

The concern about ‘drugs’ unfortunately draws attention away from the widespread abuse of alcohol, the drug that wreaks most destruction in our society.   Research clearly shows that the younger the age at which people start to drink, and the more they drink, the more likely they are to become alcoholics.  Drinking by schoolchildren is now so common, and is driven by such strong peer pressure, that many Irish parents find it impossible to control.

·        New technology continues to introduce new areas of conflict between parents and children.

Parents have struggled to control excessive and unsuitable television watching by children since the 1960s. This conflict has been much exacerbated by the availability of videos, which allow children to view violent and pornographic material which would not find its way onto the ordinary channels.  Internet porn has now become a new source of concern.     Not only the availability of new technology, but its cost and the time devoted to it, can become a major battle ground, as children demand mobile phones, computers and software, internet facilities, and pay channels.

·       There is very little help available to parents to gain parenting skills.

For all the reasons mentioned above, parenting today has become a complex skill, and modern family structures makes it more difficult to learn it ‘on the job’.   In general the importance and complexity of this skill has not been adequately recognized by governments, including our own.  Parenting courses are available in some centres and schools, but, in general, funding is inadequate to make properly certified training available.  One of the best packages on the market, popular with parent-school liaison staff, costs over £1000 to run as an accredited programme, and the cost is prohibitive for schools in disadvantaged areas.  There is also a need to devise programmes more suited to disadvantaged areas and working-class cultures, but again, current funding levels are inadequate to resource this.

An example of government neglect is the lack of financial support given to the ‘Lifestart’ programmes, which are aimed at involving parents more actively in the education of their very young children. ‘Lifestart’ is a development of an American programme called Operation Head Start, in use since the 1960s.  Apart from the help it gives in building the relationship between parent and child, preliminary research shows that children who have been through the programme perform better when they start school. Much better funding has been made available for the government’s own ‘Early Start’ school-based scheme, which is aimed at an older age group and does not involve parents as much.

More support could also be given by the government to the efforts that have been made to introduce parenting programmes in schools.  School is often the only structured learning opportunity in a person’s life, and parenting is arguably more important than many other things taught in school.   Pre-marriage courses could  also  devote   more   time   to parenting, though the proportion of parents who take part in them is declining.

Needless to say, parenting skills are not the only things needed to make parenting easier and improve the socialization of children.  Parenting is much more difficult  in situations of poverty, inadequate and crowded housing, under-funded schools, inadequate medical care, and work-related stress, and where these problems exist they have to be attended to before better parenting can have a significant impact.

The Ultimate Threat to Parenting - Voluntary Childlessness

More and more women throughout the world are choosing not to have babies at all. There are many possible reasons for this, but one Australian woman journalist, Carolyn Webb, probably put her finger on it when she said  that the big reason is that society values motherhood so poorly:

“Someone who clinches a sales deal, gains a new client, manages a team and engineers a merger is valued more highly than someone wiping bottoms, breastfeeding and nurturing a new life…  Society has a double standard for mothers.  A woman is damned if stays at home with the children, and damned if she goes back to work and ruins poor Junior’s psychological make-up by putting him in creche for a few days a week.  Now she’s damned for not having children at all.” [19]

Webb was responding to a newspaper article highlighting research into reasons why women in Australia (as in other developed countries) are having fewer children.  The researcher, Fran Baum, had identified four main categories of reasons given by women for their state of voluntary childlessness:

·          Hedonists - women who choose to remain childless through a desire to preserve their standard of living and who are unwilling to invest either their time or money in raising children.

·          Emotional - women who do not have emotional feelings for babies or children.

·          Idealistic - women who do not want to bring a child into a world they feel is unsuitable, or who do not want to contribute to overpopulation.

·          Practical - women who have a practical reason for being childless, such as a desire to pursue their career, or a fear of passing on a genetic defect to their child. [20]

Webb, in her response, also suggested other reasons, such as an increasing difficulty in ‘meeting the right person’ due to the break up of community and church structures, and even the demise of dances where couples traditionally met in a ‘safe’ environment.

The availability of contraceptives is not considered a major factor in fertility decline.  They were not widely available when fertility began to decline in Northern Europe at the end of the 19th century.  Fertility decline is more likely to be caused by a change in values.  Today there exists a close correspondence between fertility and contraceptives, but this most likely means that many families that have chosen to limit family size, find contraceptives the easiest way to do so. [21]

The extent of childlessness in the developed world is now quite scary.   In developed countries, the ‘fertility rate’ (the number of births per woman required to maintain a population -  excluding immigration) is currently 2.1 births.  In Ireland the current rate is now below 2.0, and it is estimated that it will be about 1.6 by 2005. [22]   (As recently as 1971 it was 4.0).  In other European countries the situation is much worse.  In former Eastern Germany the situation is catastrophic, with the current fertility rate only 0.77, the lowest in the world. [23]   In Italy and Spain the rate is below 1.2.  Demographers forecast that if this continues the population of Italy, now 57 million, could decline to fewer than 10 million within a century. [24]

A lot of attention has been focused on medical reasons for childlessness, such as declining sperm counts, but it is estimated that only 5-8%  of couples are unable to have children for medical reasons. [25]   The main reasons for childlessness seem to be socio-cultural, with economic considerations playing a big part.

The only country in Europe with fertility above replacement rate is Sweden.   In Sweden fertility fell to low levels in the the 1970s  but recovered to a stage where it tops the EU league.  It is probably no coincidence that more parent-friendly policies were introduced in the 1980s, to the extent that they are now the best in the world. [26]   For instance parental leave provisions in Sweden are as follows:

·        Up to 450 days per child (126 in Ireland, plus 56 days unpaid leave).

·        Out of the 450 days of leave, 30 are reserved for the mother and 30 for the father, but the rest of the days can be split as they wish (no statutory paid paternal leave yet in Ireland).

·        Parents receive 85% of their income for the first 60 days, while for the next 290 days the compensation is the same as for sickness benefits (80%) and a flat rate thereafter (70% for 126 days in Ireland).

·        Employers often provide a supplement so that the parent’s full salary is replaced for up to 4 months (sometimes happens in Ireland too).

·        120 days leave to care for children between 8 and 12 at 75% of wage [27]   (nothing similar in Ireland).

The United States may appear to buck the trend at first sight, since the fertility rate there is 2.1 [28] and the U.S. has no paid parental leave.   However the fertility rate among non-Hispanic whites is only 1.8, whereas the Hispanic rate is 3.0. [29]   Research suggests that in the U.S. “the relatively high fertility of immigrants compared to natives can be completely explained by compositional differences with respect to age, education, income and ethnicity” and that fertility has dropped at a faster rate for natives than for immigrants. [30]

In general, research suggests “a moderate but not insignificant impact of family policy (i.e. family benefits) on demographic behaviour”. [31]

Many advantages have been identified, to children, parents and employers, of extended maternity and paternal leave, backed up by considerable research [32] :

·        There are significant benefits conferred by breastfeeding to mothers and infants.  Breastfeeding is related to improved infant health through decreased incidence or severity of many diseases, and possibly enhanced cognitive development.  Employment of mothers reduces both the frequency and duration of breastfeeding.

·        Parental leave reduces household stress and allows parents to give more time to children, nurture and stimulate them, and develop healthy interactions with them.

·        Parental leave rights improve the labour market status of women.   Generous leave legislation increases the employment-to-population ratio of women of childbearing age by about 9%.

·        Long parental leaves are associated with better maternal health, including mental health and vitality.

·        Research reveals that more generous parental leave reduces the deaths of infants and young children.

·        More women return to work after childbirth where parental leave systems are in place.

·        Paternity leave encourages shared parenthood.

Better parental leave on its own is probably not enough to persuade couples that parenting can be combined with work.  Working hours are so inflexible, and in many cases so long, that having children while holding down a job can be very stressful.

The reduction in the length of the maximum working week to 48 hours through gradual implementation of the Organization of Working Time Act of 1997 should be welcome news for families with young children.  In particular it should allow many fathers more time with their children, instead of them having to try to squeeze in an hour of ‘quality time’ at 9 p.m. when the child is exhausted.  Hopefully the government will actually enforce this EU-inspired Act, for which the stated penalties for non-compliance are quite severe.

While individual employers may balk at the idea of giving employees more parental leave, it is good to see that the employers’ representative body, IBEC, are urging employees to adopt more parent-friendly policies.  They refer particularly to flexible arrangements such as part-time working and there is no doubt that this would be necessary in addition to better parental leave if women, in particular, are to be attracted into the workforce or remain in it.  This initiative of IBEC is being carried out jointly with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions.  Both groups, as well as the Government, are concerned about the 80,000 vacancies (6.5% of all jobs) currently unfilled in the State.   But in the general scale of things, our fertility rate should be of much greater concern than our current difficulty in filling jobs.

Choices About Daycare

There is big push on in Ireland at present to make childcare more widely available to all social classes.  The National Development Plan included £250m. for childcare and the Government subsequently allocated a further £40m.  This is not before its time, as childcare provision   in   Ireland  lags  far  behind  that  in

much of the EU.  Where childcare is not readily available, or is too expensive, women inevitably suffer discrimination in their aspirations to take a full part in the workforce.  Children may suffer too, if they are left at home without supervision because there is nowhere for them to be minded.

Much of the new funding for childcare is earmarked for grants for building or renovating childcare centres and crèches.  These certainly have their place.  However they tend to be established with the work-schedule of the parent in mind rather than (except indirectly) the interests of the child.  Daycare can only be the first choice for the children themselves towards the end of the toddler period, well into the third year, when it begins to fulfill needs for companionship and education from others.  In this way daycare replaces some of the support and social education once given by siblings, relatives and neighbours.   But infants are best cared for by the mother, supported by the father, at home, and this is only made possible through generous parental leave provision.  Toddlers are best cared for, if not at home, then in a home environment with another family, where they are consistently cared for by people they know and who know them. [33]   This model of childcare, (which in Irealnd is used by 45% of parents of children aged 0-4 in full-time jobs) [34] , is not sufficiently supported by the present government strategy, which is overly focused on child-minding outside the home or home environment. The matter is complicated by the fact that most of those minding in their own home operate in the informal economy.  However the Partnership 2000 Expert Working Group on Childcare devoted a lot of attention to this issue, and their recommendations in relation to special tax allowances and income disregards should be followed up as a matter of urgency.

Where parents are looking after young children, international research suggests that daycare is not in fact their first choice.   Given the choice, the money, and guarantees regarding their employment status, most mothers of children under two would choose to stay at home.  Countries with the best daycare provision do not necessarily have the most working mothers of young children. [35]

In spite of new legislation, there are still many unregistered, and therefore uninspected, facilities where infants are cared for.  Many staff are unqualified.  Even in many registered facilities, the qualified staff are often caught up in administration, and young untrained staff do most of the hands-on work.   There are no figures for staff turnover in Ireland, but it is probably not far from the U.S. figure of 42% per annum.   This kind of discontinuity is far from ideal for an infant.


Parenting in the developed world is in crisis today.  A dramatic symptom of this is that women (in many cases with male collusion) are choosing not to have babies, or at any rate not sufficient to guarantee the survival of their own national grouping.  Where parents do choose to have children, they are less likely today to be able to give the time it takes to raise well-balanced, responsible, and properly-socialized children.

The main reason (but not the only reason) why parenting is in crisis is that the modern economy does not value parenting sufficiently.  Although the long-term interests of all developed economies depend on a steady or growing supply of workers, customers, and entrepreneurs, the short-term demands of economies for productivity, highly-structured work organization, and profits, militate against their longer-term needs.  There is urgent need to make employment more family-friendly, through the provision of much more generous parental leave, and flexible work schedules which benefit the working parent rather than the customer.

Childcare provision  needs to be improved.    Parents, particularly women, need affordable childcare to be able to combine paid work with good parenting, and avoid destructive stress to themselves.   Childcare costs in Ireland are the highest in Europe as a percentage of earned income. [36]     Tax relief  for childcare is an obvious measure, as long as some way is devised of giving equivalent assistance to parents who are outside the tax net.   Government strategy should not lose sight of the fact that childminding in the minder’s home is the most commonly used childcare arrangement among women with paid jobs, and is the most desirable type of childcare for very young children.

Finally, most governments,  including the  Irish government, need to give more help to  parents to improve their parenting skills.   Money spent in this area would be better spent than much  of that   devoted   to  curbing   delinquency,   after parenting has broken down.  The possibility  of setting up a ‘Parenting Promotion Unit’ on  the lines  of  the  former    ‘Health Promotion Unit’ should be considered.

Bill Toner S.J. is Director of the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice, Dublin



My thanks to Berna Cunningham for her helpful comments on a draft of this article.   Thanks also to the many parents and professionals who took time to discuss parenting issues with me, especially Paul Andrews S.J., Grainne Casey, Maureen Looney, Sr. Eileen Mullen, John Sharry,  Sr. Dympna Tipper, and the parents of Killenarden Family Resource Centre.   I am particularly indebted to Penelope Leach’s book, Children First, for many insights it contains about the wider cultural and economic forces affecting parenting today.  B.T.



[1] Vincentian Partnership for Justice, The Drugs Crisis in the Cherry Orchard/Ballyfermot Area as Seen by Members of the Local Communities. Dublin, 2000.

[2] Penelope Leach, Children First, New York, Vintage Books, 1994, p.247.

[3] Op.cit, p.258.

[4] As reported in the Irish Times, 3rd February, 2001, p.3.

[5] Penelope Leach, op.cit., p.22.

[6] ‘In former times’ or in other cultures today.  In many countries older families patterns have survived better than in the West, though even here they are changing under the impact of globalization, urbanization, and industrialialization.

[7] See the UN website:

[8] Penelope Leach, Op.cit., p.148.

[9] See Penelope Leach, Op.cit. p.25.

[10] In William Golding’s novel,  The Lord of the Flies a groups of middle-class school-children marooned on a desert island ended up, literally, killing one another.  ‘Lord of the Flies’ is a religious symbol for the devil.

[11] See for instance Robert J.MacKenzie, Setting Limits - How to Raise Responsible, Independent Children by provining CLEAR Boundaries.  Rocklin California, Prima Publishing.  1998 (2nd ed.).  A more positive approach can be found in John Sharry, Bringing Up Responsible Children, Dublin: Veritas.  1999.

[12] Maureen Gaffney, et al., Parenting - a Handbook for Parents. Dublin, Town House/RTE, 1991, p.77.

[13] Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936)  was a Russian physiologist who carried out experiments on ‘conditioned’ reflexes in dogs.   Dogs that were fed when a bell was rung were gradually induced to salivate simply by ringing a bell.  Children who are automatically punished for a particular type of behaviour, without discussion, are likely to conform, but may cease to learn anything new about the reason for the punishment.

[14] Ester, Peter et al (eds), The Individualizing Society:  Value Changes in Europe and North America.  Tilburg University Press, 1994.

[15] Maureen Gaffney et al., Op.cit., p.16.

[16] Penelope Leach, Op.cit., pp.46-47.

[17] In ‘The Teenage Years (2)’ in Maureen Gaffney et al. (op.cit.), p.143.

[18] In ‘The Teenage Years (1)’ in Maureen Gaffney et al. (op.cit.), p.129.

[19] Carolyn Webb, ‘I’ve no kids, and it is none of your business’ in The Age (Australian Newspaper), 1st April 2000.   See

[20] Baum, F. 1994, ‘Choosing Not to Have Children’.   Australian Demographic Statistics, September 1999.  Available on

[21] Keith Montgomery (University of Wisconsin) ‘The Demographic Transition’.

[22] Economic and Social Research Institute, Medium-Term Review: 1997-2003, April 1997, p.15.

[23] Kohler, Hans-Peter, ‘Research Group on Social Dynamics and Fertility’.  Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research.

[24] Tim Colebatch, ‘Childless future for many women’, in The Age. 22 March 2000.

[25] See Webb, S. and Holman D.1992.  ‘A survey of infertility, surgical sterility and associated reproductive disability in Perth, Western Australia’.  Australian Journal of Public Health, Vol.16, No.4, 376-382.

[26] Economic and Social Research Institute, Medium-Term Review: 1997-2003, April 1997, p.15.

[27] This data, and other information about trends in parental leave, is available in an article, ‘Response to Extension of Parental Leaves’ on the excellent website of the Canadian Centre of Families, Work and Well-Being,

[28] United Nations figure for 1994 available on

[29] Statistical Assessment Service, ‘Do Svidaniya Baby’.

[30] Kahn, Joan R.  ‘Immigrant and native fertility during the 1980s: adaptations and expectations for the future’. International Migration Review, Fall 1994.  Abstract available on http://popindex,

[31] Blanchet, Didier and O.Ekert-Jaffe, ‘The demographic impact of family benefits:  evidence from a micro-model and from macro-data’, in The Family, the Market and the State in Aging Societies’.  (ed. John Ermisch and N. Ogawa.  Oxford, Clarendon Press. 1994.

[32] As for Note 21.

[33] See Chapter 4, ‘Dreams and Nightmares’ in Penelope Leach, op.cit.

[34] National Children Strategy (Report of the Partnership 2000 Expert Working Group on Childcare), Stationery Office, 1999., p.16.

[35] See Penelope Leach, op.cit., p.71.

[36] National Children’s Nurseries Association, as quoted in the Irish Times Budget 2001 supplement, 7th December 2000.

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Working Notes is a journal published by the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice. The journal focuses on social, economic and theological analysis of Irish society. It has been produced since 1987.