Whose duty of care?

By Michael Schluter 14 Jun 2003

Listen, my son, to your
father’s instruction
and do not forsake
your mother’s teaching.
They will be a garland to grace
your head and a
chain to adorn your neck.
Proverbs 1:8–9

If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town…
Deuteronomy 21:18–19

Recently I have found myself thinking and writing about issues relating to parenting, both in the latest issue of Cambridge Papers on Gender Co-operation, and in the new Jubilee Centre book on the political and social vision of the Bible (due out in 2004). In both contexts I have been impressed that the Bible emphasises parenting as a joint responsibility of husband and wife.

Let me illustrate the point. In the Ten Commandments, both parents are responsible for ensuring that children rest on the Sabbath (unless you take the view that the commandments were only given to men) and children are taught to honour father and mother without distinction. In the book of Proverbs, children are taught repeatedly to heed the advice of both father and mother (e.g. Proverbs 1:8–9; 6:20–22). If a child is totally out of hand, and is flagrantly flouting God’s rules for Israel in his lifestyle, it is the duty of both father and mother to take the case to the local elders (Deuteronomy 21:18–21). Parents are also given specific responsibilities to pass on key aspects of Israel’s laws and cultural traditions (Exodus 12:26–27; Deuteronomy 4:9, 6:7; Joshua 4:21–24).

There can be no question that the biblical ideal is that both parents together take on the responsibility of bringing up their child to know and love God, and to behave in a socially acceptable manner. Where a marriage breaks down, or where a couple have children but do not make a public commitment to one another in marriage, the child is generally the loser. This level of parental input and responsibility involves a large commitment of time, in today’s world our scarcest commodity. Children need ‘quality time’ from their parents to establish a sense of self-worth and self-esteem. They need ‘quantity time’ to have a sense of inner security. Effective discipline of children can only take place if a relationship of love and trust has been established, which again requires time from parents.

This view of parenting appears to be sharply at odds with government policy. The tax credit arrangements in Gordon Brown’s recent budget penalise couples who are married and declare their joint income. A mother can get a much greater tax credit by insisting that the child’s father lives separately from her. So, too, if parents use registered day care rather than spending time at home with the child themselves, they can access thousands of pounds of tax credits not available to the stay-at-home parent. Gordon’s budget, as far as tax credits are concerned, has to be regarded as generally both destructive to marriage and detrimental to the interests of children.

The present government has also done little so far to help parents get time off work to spend with children. The few days off at birth count for little when 1.5 million parents of school-age children work both Saturday and Sunday all or most weekends. The rights of parents with pre-school children to ask that employers should ‘consider’ their request for flexible working arrangements lacks teeth; employers can easily find some kind of justification for the status quo. However, to make it compulsory for employers to give employees flexible working hours would be impossible in practice without massive state intervention in the running of companies.

The obvious solution to ensure parents can give more time to their children is to guarantee a weekend day off for all ‘parent-employees’, as proposed in our Keep Time for Children amendment under the Local Government Bill now in the House of Lords. But the government has not yet shown much enthusiasm for this option. As Christians, we need to be more critically aware of how our government is undermining marriage, and failing to ensure time for children. God cares deeply about the strength of our marriages and the welfare of our children. We should too.

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