(The Nationalist, 6 and 20 September 2002)
Children need families. One of the greatest benefits any child can have at the start of life is a father and mother who have committed themselves permanently to each other in marriage. That is fast becoming less common, with many couples cohabiting, sometimes in serial relationships, and many solo parent families. (I am not condemning the solo parent. She or he is the one who did not abandon the child.) But a single-parent family cannot compare with one which has two parents who have made a life-long, exclusive commitment to each other.
For the sake of their children parents need to do the job of parenting, taking on the work of training their children to become responsible adults. Some parents have opted out of this responsibility, leaving it to the school or to grandparents.
If we had more active parenting we would have fewer crimes or vandalism, less drug-taking, alcoholism and suicide among the young, less need for therapists – and happier children. These problems are more often brought about by the collapse of social links, especially the family, than by poverty, unemployment or lack of recreational facilities.
In Ireland the traditional family is collapsing and being replaced by a variety of less stable relationships. This is the greatest social challenge facing us today. And there is a domino effect at work in the situation: people enter new relationships with progressively less commitment than before, in case things don’t work out. Doing so virtually guarantees that the new relationship will fail.
The collapse of the family means the erosion of those networks of trust, responsibility and commitment that make up civic society. The child whose parents are split asunder by adultery has his/her assumptions about trust, fidelity and commitment destroyed. Commitment means restricting one’s freedom of choice and action for the sake of a greater good. To the individualist, any such restriction is oppressive.
Children who come from broken families don’t do as well in life, and they go on to re-enact the problem in adulthood through their inability to form permanent relationships.
Marriage is being demoted from the foundation stone of civilized society to just another lifestyle choice, to be discarded along with those who rely on it, such as children. The autonomous individual doing his or her own thing has, for some, become the only moral absolute.
We need to accept that there is a link between acts and their consequences so that personal behaviour and responsibility are seen to matter.
(With help from Melanie Phillips, “Keep using the M-word”, The Tablet, 14 February 1998, pp.197-198)