Are nuclear families at risk of extinction?

Nearly a quarter of children born since 2000 were raised in single-parent households – twice the European average

Mum, dad and two children watching TV
The traditional two-parent nuclear family is ‘rapidly becoming a thing of the past’
(Image credit: Compassionate Eye Foundation/Rob Daly/OJO Images Ltd)

“When the lights go off this winter, it will finally dawn on everybody that neglecting our energy requirements for the best part of three decades was probably a tad unwise,” said Rod Liddle in The Sunday Times. It makes me wonder what else are we ignoring now “that will cause us immense misery” a few decades on.

There’s climate change, of course, but there are also the warnings in last week’s report by the children’s commissioner, Dame Rachel de Souza, to the effect that the traditional two-parent nuclear family is “rapidly becoming a thing of the past”.

Nearly a quarter of children born since 2000 were raised in single-parent households – twice the European average – and 44% have not spent their entire childhoods with both biological parents. While liberal lefties may cheer on “this breakdown of bourgeois morality”, the fact is that it will have dire long-term effects.

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‘Gloomy hand-wringing’

This report has been greeted with gloomy hand-wringing on the right, said Gaby Hinsliff in The Guardian. But actually it shows that the proportion of lone-parent families has “barely changed in 20 years”. And while de Souza certainly describes the “protective effect” of strong family networks, she is not narrowly prescriptive about the kind of families people should live in: it’s about stable relationships, her research shows, not DNA.

Still, it’s glaringly obvious that family circumstance has “a major impact on the trajectory of a life”, said The Daily Telegraph. The statistics show that it has “a clear effect on educational outcomes, earnings and well-being”; children who grow up with married parents generally do better than those from single-parent households, regardless of income levels. So it’s worrying that, according to de Souza, recent governments have been too “squeamish” to face up to the issue.

‘Whole area is nuclear’

“Politically, this whole area is nuclear,” said Emma Duncan in The Times. It doesn’t seem fair, when we think about what’s wrong with society, “to point the finger at lone parents”. Few single mothers, after all, “choose to bring up children by themselves”. And few government policies can keep families together; Iain Duncan Smith’s marriage tax allowance, worth a few hundred quid, hasn’t made much difference. “The only area of policy that has half a chance of making an impact is education and childcare.”

Good schools can provide a disciplined environment that some lone parents struggle to create; affordable childcare allows single parents to work. Yet school funding has been cut by 9% in real terms in the past decade of Conservative rule; childcare costs more than in any other European country. “If the Tories want to break this pattern, that’s the lever to pull.

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