A generation drowns in boos: Repairing society’s attitude to rearing children would be revolutionary

Peter Saunders, Professor of sociology at the University of Sussex, said something dreadful at a conference of social policy research centres in Sydney in 1999.

He must have. A sizeable part of the audience hissed.

What he said was: “If I were a baby waiting to be born, I’d consider myself best off if I were born to two parents married to each other.”

Next time Saunders talks out of turn, he may risk lynching. He is now living in Sydney as a senior fellow of the Centre for Independent Studies.

The Centre’s eight-year research project, Taking Children Seriously, has established empirically that at least this generation’s children get the best start to life in the environment Saunders praised – and that their parents were, as children, victims of collateral damage from the social revolution of the past few decades.

To me, the CIS’s Taking Children Seriously program is the most important intellectual and political study of family life undertaken in recent times.

It is virtually impossible to discuss, in a public policy context, matters related to children and family – from taxation to sex and education – without referring, sometimes inadvertently and with an implied hiss, to the CIS findings.

Directed by Barry Maley, former senior lecturer in behavioural sciences at the University of NSW, the study produced dozens of monographs, position papers and books – by Maley and scholars from a variety of disciplines including psychologist Lucy Sullivan, economist Helen Hughes and educationalist Jennifer Buckingham.

Appropriately, Maley has the last word in Family and Marriage in Australia (CIS, $29.95), a summation of eight years’ work, out today.

The book’s tone is cool, befitting an inquiry that began without preconception or ideological commitment. It isn’t counter-revolutionary but ruthlessly probes the consequences of a
social revolution Maley concedes to have succeeded and to be essentially irreversible.

Maley traces it historically as “the sexual, political and feminist movements that arose in the 1960s… shaping a revolution in sexual conduct, in how we conceive of marriage, in non-sexual relations between men and women, in workforce participation by women”. Its promise was “emancipation from illusion and oppression in the interests of human flourishing”.
Revolutionary thinking skipped too quickly, however, over the position of children in this emancipated society.

Maley’s assessment: “In the space of 40 years we have moved from a situation in which just one child in 20 was ‘illegitimate’ to one in which nearly one in three is born ‘extra-nuptially’… in which less than one child in 10 was reared in a household from which one of the natural parents was missing to one in which more than 1 million children – more than one child in four – are so reared.”

The Taking Children Seriously study has been rigorous in connecting cause and effect.

Maley speaks from substantial base, therefore, when he associates the disruption of connections between children and parents with a tenfold increase in juvenile crime during the past 20 years and a quadrupling of youth suicides.

He is on firm empirical ground in declaring that, on average, “the lives of children in single-parent, de facto, step-parent and blended families are more risky, more marked by low achievement and less fulfilled in adulthood than the lives of those living with their married natural parents”.

Likewise, Maley draws on solid research in noting that neglect and physical and sexual abuse of children has increased in “strong association” with the increase in the numbers of children reared outside two-parent, married families.

The absence of fathers has been demonstrated in the CIS study (in particular, in Jennifer Buckingham’s monograph Boy Troubles) to have had deleterious effect on the academic achievement of boys.

Nor does Maley see the first post-revolutionary generation doing very well for itself.

“Divorce,” he writes, “is the prospect for almost one marriage in two and no marriage at all for at least one woman in four… There is a wide disparity between the hopes of men and women in their 20s [for enduring relationships and children] and the realities they face in their 30s and 40s.”

Due to the uncertainties about the duration or relationships between men and women, Australian fertility rates are declining.
In one of his most telling passages, Maley notes that “none of the above facts has been concealed from us”.

However, he adds, the cultural implications are just too disturbing to be confronted: “We have so changed our attitudes and behaviour towards marriage, the importance of a stable parental relationship, and the rearing of children… that repair would revolutionise our way of life.”

A couple of years ago, Maley told me he had confidence in the commonsense and good intent of his fellow Australians to find solutions for the problems children endure in our post-revolution society.

Let’s hope so. They can’t be hissed out of existence.

Frank Devine was a columnist for The Australian and a long-time friend of The Centre for Independent Studies.