I've had a series of blog posts brewing for a while - not my usual Suddenly Mummy stories of cute doings by the little ones, but please don't click away from this page yet. This post, and probably several future posts, will be prompted by a growing feeling I have that our children have long since stopped being our children in the eyes of some. Or at least, while they may be our children in name, we as parents are no longer trusted to do any kind of a good job of raising them.
More than that, the whole concept of children being the natural result of a mutually loving relationship is being challenged at its very core. More and more, children are becoming commodities, engineered, modified, bought, and swapped around to suit the needs of adults. I well understand the possible irony of an adoptive parent saying such a thing, but there will be future blog space to unpack exactly what I mean by it.
For now, let me begin with what is possibly an unlikely starting point: the announcement this week that all infant-aged children will receive a free school meal. What's not to like? Well, plenty apparently, if you read any of the comments below the article on the BBC News website. Most of the objections there are the usual ones about how parents should feed their own children and childless people shouldn't be paying for other people's kids, as well as the usual bizarre sprinkling of diatribes about immigrants, chavs and the feckless. Well, it is the internet after all!
Of course, there are financial implications to this proposal which do effectively mean that the taxpayer will be subsidising parents of infant children to the tune of £400 per year per child, should they take up the free meal option. One could argue the economic ideology of such a scheme until the end of time without reaching resolution. My objections are based on something a little different.
School Food Plan, spearheaded by chefs Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent described 99% of packed lunches as not meeting the nutritional standards that apply to school meals and urged a multi-faceted approach to increasing the take-up of school meals (which currently stands at less than 50%).
The School Food Plan website says that,
A random sample of 1,000 packed lunches found that 85% contained sandwiches, while two thirds contained sweets, sugary drinks and savoury snacks such as crisps. Only one in five contained the recommended proportion of vegetables.
I'm not going to argue with the research or get into a row about what constitutes 'healthy' or whether it might be ok to let your kids take a packet of crisps to school occasionally, or even comment on their apparent inclusion of sandwiches in the non-healthy department. For the purposes of this, let's just take the research at face value - kids are getting too fat and having them eat school dinners will help with this.
The second reason seems to concern children's ability to learn being improved if they get a nutritious diet and, specifically, if they eat a filling, healthy, nutritious lunch. I'm not going to argue with this either. If they've done research then fair enough, I'm not second guessing it right now.
My concern is that, supposing both these reasons are valid, is providing free school meals for all infant-aged children really the most appropriate response? It seems to be a case of, "You're doing it wrong - let us do it for you," rather than "You're doing it wrong - let us help and support you." The School Food Plan even offers comfort to parents struggling to provide nutritious packed lunches for their children:
This is not a problem of lackadaisical parenting. Making a good, nutritionally -balanced packed lunch, day after day, is hard.
Later, in reference to a packed lunch meal planner drawn up by the Children's Food Trust, more comfort is offered to beleaguered parents
The mere thought of this amount of cooking – on top of making breakfast and dinner for the family – would make anyone’s eyes water, but for a parent working full time it would be a Herculean task.
You see? It's not your fault, hard-working parent. Let us take this burden from you. The problem is that each time we as parents allow the state to take some of the burden of parenting from us, we hand over a little of our authority as parents. We admit that someone else could do a better job than we can. We take on board the idea that, not only does someone else know best, but rather than learning from them and adapting our parenting, we can just give in and let them do it for us.
It's strange because, in raising children, we know that if we want them to become independent and able to function, we shouldn't keep doing for them what they can do themselves. Guaranteed that the parent that constantly follows their 4-year-old around tidying up after them will be lamenting their grumpy teenager's inability to put their dirty clothes in the laundry basket ten years later. I have a theory that when we remove the need for people to do things for themselves, they soon forget how to. In time they forget that they ever had the ability to do things for themselves and become more and more dependent on others, constantly expecting 'them' or 'someone' to step in and sort things out.
In recent years, I believe we have seen a concerted effort by the state to wrestle children away from parents and into state-run institutions. I'm thinking about Sure Start nurseries springing up everywhere, sometimes obliterating long-standing independent nurseries and playgroups. And free nursery provision for three and four year olds that is now being extended to some two year olds. And breakfast, after-school and holiday clubs provided in schools. And the relentless insistence that every parent should go to work all of the time, not to mention the cost of living rises and benefit reductions that 'encourage' people to find work. (Maybe if those who wanted to stay at home with their children were financially supported to do so, more parents would be able to take on the 'Herculean task' of providing healthy lunches?) And now we'll even feed your children for free because we don't want them to be fat and stupid. Why? Because fat people cost the NHS money and stupid people don't contribute to the economy as much as well-educated people. And all of these changes are portrayed as being made to 'help' parents. Most are welcomed by parents' groups and the general public at large.
To me, offering free school meals is a back-door version of the same strategy. While reassuring parents that it's not their fault that they can't meet these high standards, the state takes another little slice of the parenting cake. Every time the state seeks to do the job of a parent rather than support parents in doing their job, little warning sirens go off in my head.
Perhaps it seems far-fetched, but think about this. Children learn better when they've had a healthy, nutritious, filling lunch, so let's provide such a meal for free. Children also learn better when they've had a good night's sleep in a calm environment without TVs in their rooms . . . perhaps we should also provide them with a place to sleep? And if you think something like that could never happen, just remember that Ceaucescu seemed to think it was a good idea.