Shared Parenting Information Group (SPIG) UK
- promoting responsible shared parenting after separation and divorce -
European directives on Fathers
speaking at the IPPR Conference 'Men and their Children' in London, 30th April 1996
The issue of men and their children is a recurring and significant item on the social policy agenda in Europe and has been raised in numerous statements. In particular Article 6 of the 1992 Council of Ministers Recommendation on Child Care recommends that "Member states should promote and encourage increased participation by men in the care and upbringing of children."
Article 6 is very significant and has been adopted by all member state governments, including the UK. By doing so the UK has made a clear political commitment to take action to support men's roles as carers for children, but there are few signs that the action has actually been implemented here.
Fathers and employment
Fathers in the United Kingdom have the longest hours of paid work in Europe - 47 hours a week on average, which is for example six hours a week more than Danish fathers work. Overall fathers spend more than three times as many hours in paid work as mothers. At the same time men are faced with a precipitate fall in employment after age 50, leading to a concentration of men's paid work on the period of their active parenthood.
We need to recognise that fathers' employment is far more problematic and intransigent than mothers' employment, and that children and work/family issues are not simply the affair of women. The question is not "Should mothers go out to work ?", but "How can parents - fathers and mothers - manage the relationship between employment and family life ?".
There is a need for support for managing the relationship between employment and family life. Recently the Council of Ministers finally adopted a directive on parental leave. This will entitle each worker in Europe, male and female, to at least three months leave to care for a young child. The UK has excluded itself from this and consequently UK fathers will soon be the only fathers in Europe who have no right to parental leave or indeed to any other form of child-related leave.
The role of men
EU statements mostly refer to men - not just fathers. This is an important distinction. It is a mistake to look at fatherhood in isolation from the wider issue of men's responsibility for, and relationships with, children. By doing so we risk missing the larger picture - for long hours of paternal employment, growing lone parenthood, and the minimal presence of men in services working with children, means that young childhood is being increasingly feminised.
The importance of men's roles as workers in services for young children such as nurseries has to be emphasised and a proposed target for these services set. In the UK this debate has been dominated by the issue of abuse, which has precluded a broader and more balanced debate about the case for mixed gender working groups in services for children.
The theme of men and their children covers other roles, for example men as relatives and the high proportion of men in parliament, government, the media and other positions of power, whose decisions have major implications for the well-being of children.
The need for new policies
We need to consider new policies like parental leave, but we also need to consider existing institutions and resources and their contribution to supporting men as carers. For example the role of nurseries and supporting fathers, and cultural change about gender roles. An important issue today is "How far do institutions already existing in Britain, recognise, value, and respond to fathers and men as carers, and how can they become more father friendly ?"
The need for political leadership
There is a need for political leadership on this issue of men and their children. So far it has been lacking.
The UK government's response to the question of encouraging more male participation in the care of children says in effect "It's a private matter - nothing to do with us".
Three points strike one about this response:
But the opposition parties and the media have equally failed us, ignoring the commitment contained in Article 6, and failing to question the attitude of the government. The important question today is whether any political parties have a considered position on men and their children that goes beyond seeing men as providers and authority figures.
To move forward toward a society where the subject of men as carers is a subject of continuous and important debate complemented by strategies of support, increased participation by men in the care of children, is to engage a wide range of groups and institutions - employers, trade unions, private organisations, the media and many educational, health and social services. But government in particular and politicians in general have a critical leadership role. Challenging as this role will be, to a mainly male establishment, many of whom will find the issue profoundly threatening, it must be assumed if we are to develop an effective partnership and move on from wringing our hands in despair to taking constructive steps forward.
- How value-laden it is. When it comes to men's participation in the economic support of children, government does not hesitate to intervene, yet when it comes to encouraging men as carers of children it adopts a laisse faire attitude.
- It shows a simplistic concept of family life and the role of public policy. It assumes a model in which families always reach ideal decisions, presumably around a kitchen table, unaffected by any external constraints. It can only envisage a role for public policy that is prescriptive, rather than enabling and supportive.
- This lack of understanding is, in part at least, a consequence of a failure to open up the issue to informed debate. The government's response was made privately, without consultation, avoiding any need to test the deductions against other views and evidence.
Peter Moss, Senior Research Fellow at the Thomas Coram Institute, speaking at the IPPR Conference 'Men and their Children' in London, 30 April 1996
Summary by David Cannon - Shared Parenting Information Group
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