23 April 2012

Are parents of young children fit to run the country?

A 43 year old father of two teenagers recently got me thinking about the age of our our leading politicians' children: "I really don't think that all these blokes with young children are in any position to govern effectively."

The point he was getting at will be familiar enough to all parents, and especially those where both partners are working (or have have worked) in demanding jobs. He was taking about the time-consuming nature of bringing up a family and the dedication, distractions and compromises it inevitably involves.

Many of us, of course, have already raised doubts about the growing dominance of contemporary British politics by MPs in their 40s, whose main work experience has been as former aides to older politicians.

But it hadn't really dawned on me that the age of their children might also be a powerful new factor in the lives they're all trying to lead. If nothing else, it must put a tremendous strain on them when it comes to maintaining a satisfactory balance between home and work (I do, however, remember wondering if one of Gordon Brown's more notorious gaffes - "We've already saved the world - er saved the banks" - partly derived from his being tired from nights disturbed by very young children HERE).

Youngsters with young children
Consider the ages of the current prime minister, deputy prime minister, leader of the opposition, chancellor and shadow chancellor and their 13 children, whose average age is just over 7 (all ages in brackets):

Cameron (45): 3 children (2, 6, 8)
Clegg (45): 3 children (3, 7, 10)
Miliband (42): 2 children (2, 3)
Osborne (41): 2 children (9, 11)
Balls (45): 3 children (7, 11, 13)

How are you doing/did you do?
Now consider what you job were doing (or are doing now) while bringing up children aged between 2 and 13. Then ask yourself the following: 
  • How well did you (or do you) cope? 
  • How many commitments at work, home or school have you had to miss out on? 
  • What impact has your missing work commitments had on your family life (and vice-versa)?
How are they doing?
In his Wikipedia entry, Nick Clegg is quoted as saying "The most important things in my life are my three young children: I'm besotted with them" (HERE) - which presumably (and understandably) makes them more important than his job in government as deputy prime minister.

Elsewhere, in the run-up to the most recent Labour leadership contest Mrs Ed Balls (Yvette Cooper) wrote candidly on why her mention of her young children didn't mean that she was letting women down by not standing for the leadership (HERE). 

And, as I was writing this, news came through on Twitter that David Cameron had shown he is aware of the problem on BBC Radio 4's Today programme this very morning when he said "It's got to be possible to be a decent husband, a decent father as well as prime minister."

Should we worry?
So, going back to the question raised by my 43 year old informant's point: how worried should we be about being governed by people whose lives must be distracted by trying to run private lives with children who are so very much younger than those of most previous generations of leading politicians?

P.S. Tweeted Reactions
Although I may have hinted at what I think about this, I deliberately left it as an open question - which makes it all the more gratifying that, since posting it a few hours ago, it's attracted quite a lot of interest on Twitter, for which thanks to all of those who've taken the trouble to respond.

As the comments haven't been entered under 'Comments' below, you might like to see a selection of what people have been saying:

  • 'Possibly something in this!...Yawn' @benatipsosmori 
  • 'This is the kind of thinking that keeps women from putting themselves forward for power. ' @karinjr
  • 'We ask too much of our leaders if we ask them not to want children and family lives.' @karinjr
  • 'You are inviting me to make a sweeping generalisation! You should know this is the HQ of mushy equivocation.' @JohnRentoul 
  • 'Don't Cameron et al all have professional child care/nannies?!' @PolProfSteve
  • 'A lot of good sense here!' @DillyTalk 
  • 'Women are harder on themselves. Have you seen the recent research showing women believe themselves less qualified for office?' @karinjr
  • 'Not having kids, I can't speak for how hard it is (crazy hard I bet) but I think women more likely than men to doubt themselves' @karinjr
  • 'I realise this is a tangent from the "politicians with kids" question, but...' HERE @karinjr
  • 'We need a broad reflection of society for govts to work properly - gender, race, background, income, kids ages etc.' @lochlomondhol 
  • 'Agreed, but my worry is sheer tiredness + work/life balance. Constant try to get clients to manage this better' @DillyTalk
  • 'A very good point. I've often thought about it - particularly the sleep deprivation, which knocks about 20 points off your IQ.' @MASieghart 
  • 'Also, as I wrote a couple of weeks ago, this business of peaking at 40 makes it even harder for women with children to compete.' @MASieghart 
  • 'Women have argued for many years for provision of adequate, affordable childcare. Won't stop sleepless ngts tho!' @DillyTalk