Parenting problems and the future of the family

Battle of Ideas festival 2022, Saturday 15 October, Church House, London


From delinquent teenagers to free-love hippies, the family has often appeared to be in crisis. Today, many seem to be eschewing the traditional arrangement: millennials, now the largest generation, are less likely to live with a spouse and child than any of their elders. Likewise, rather than beginning the journey of starting their own families, record proportions of young people are still living with their parents. Among those who do form family groups, rates of marriage and children are lower and fewer people care for, or stay close to, elderly relatives.

Some argue that this might be down to the fact that the family is often cast as an outdated institution, even a relic of the post-war era and a bastion of white supremacy and homophobia. The recent liberalisation of divorce law, with the introduction of ‘no-fault divorce’, was celebrated by some as a step forward for choice and freedom. However, others bemoaned the potential for individuals to simply ‘give up’ on family commitments. Many commentators have observed that it is no coincidence that virtues long associated with family life – duty, stability, selflessness and thrift – are also in decline.

In her new book, The Problem with Parenting: how raising children is changing across America, Nancy McDermott investigates the changing nature of childrearing from the 1970s onwards, making the case for a renewal of a societal commitment to children and the rising generation. Given the mountain of evidence to show that stable, two-parent families are best for children, is family, for all its flaws, worth defending? Does family life make life more meaningful? On the other hand, can discussions about family life become too narrow, sidelining the many successful families that don’t adhere to a traditional heterosexual framework? Is the traditional family worth defending, or is there a better way to live?

Neil Davenport
cultural critic; head of faculty of social sciences, JFS Sixth Form Centre

Nancy McDermott
author, The Problem with Parenting: how raising children is changing across America; chapter leader, Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism (FAIR)

Matthew Patten
political and communications director, Centre for Social Justice; former charity CEO; former member, European Parliament

Ellie Lee
professor of family and parenting research, University of Kent, Canterbury; director, Centre for Parenting Culture Studies