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Bringing up baby in the big, bad world

Fathers and mothers must have time off to come to terms with life's great challenge, says Ewan Aitken

The photograph that accompanies this column is nothing like me. Well actually it is a fair representation, except for the huge bags under my eyes that are the result of becoming a father again at the beginning of February. Given what my wife went through giving birth to our second child, I recognise that bags under the eyes and broken sleep are a very small price to pay.

I have just spent two weeks on paternity leave. Interestingly, the level of expectation that I would take leave was very high. I was left in no doubt by constituents, colleagues and friends, as well as family, that paternity leave was a given; not to take it would be an abrogation of responsibility.

I was delighted to respond positively, but it did strike me that such attitudes were a sea change from as short a time as seven years ago when parenthood last befell me. Then, as a parish minister, my congregation encouraged me to take time off but others questioned it or at least suggested that it was a bit "new manPC" and not really what most men would do.

I am deeply aware that many men do not get the same chances for paternity time off and that many women are denied all but the minimum time also. But this is changing and for the good.

As I understand it, my own party, Labour, is pledging to increase the opportunities for men to be off for the early months of their children's lives. In some Scandinavian countries, both parents can be off for up to a year with full support from the state, which greatly benefits child and parents. There are few things more valuable than time with your children, especially when they are young.

And yet, what of those children whose parents are not around or, when they are around, the relationship is mutually destructive for both parent and child? The challenge is finding the right response for those in such circumstances. In schools and in partnership with other agencies, we can do a great deal - even though children only spend 15 per cent of their time in school itself.

Some children I know of in Edinburgh have such impoverished circumstances that they are collected at 7am by local workers. They are then washed, dressed and fed at a breakfast club; they attend school and out of school care, only returning home around 6pm. There is no doubt that they are in a much better state than they were a few months ago. But still, teachers and others report that much progress is constantly undone in those vital hours when the state, in whatever form, is not intervening.

One of my colleagues tells the tale of waiting for his own child at the school gates and watching another child run out to her mother with a painting. With excited eyes, the child handed her mother the picture only for the mother to stuff it in her bag and snap "that's another one for the bin then".

There is much talk in educational circles and beyond about the need to create a learning environment that builds children's self-esteem, nurtures self-confidence and encourages creativity and self-expression. I agree with those sentiments completely, but the place that such changes need to happen more than anywhere is in the home.

We are in danger of entering a time of crisis in parenting, a crisis epitomised by the young lad gesticulating behind Cathy Jamieson, the Justice Minister, as she argued for measures to reduce binge drinking.

Where were his parents when he was saying, "there's nothing to do, so I drink"?

If we are to deliver the truly integrated services for children which Education Minister Peter Peacock calls for in his intro-duction to the guidance review Happy, safe and achieving their potential, that means challenging and supporting those parents whose action or inaction is destructive to their children.

Schools, especially through guidance structures, will have a crucial role in identifying parents whose lifestyles are destructive. But the resources to respond will have to come from others, including policy-makers at local and national level.

We haven't yet delivered paternity or maternity leave for all, though we are much closer than we once were. Perhaps, however, it is time to look at delivering parenting leave for some, and respite for others where their children stay with carers while they learn what it is to be parents.

Only once we, the state, are convinced that they can manage, do we let them loose once again - on their children.

Ewan Aitken is executive member for children and families on Edinburgh City Council and education spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.

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