Single sell-out;Talkback

16th January 1998 at 00:00
This Government is fulfilling its manifesto pledge of helping single parents." Thus spoke the Social Security Secretary, Harriet Harman, when she defended plans to cut benefits for single parents. "Single mothers want to get back to work," she claimed, "and we are going to help them do that."

For a minister in a government that preaches the virtues of family values and laments falling standards in education and social behaviour, this is an astonishing statement. I do not believe that most single parents of pre-school age children want to get back to work. More importantly, I would question if the Government is right to encourage them do to so.

The keystone to educational and personal development is the acquisition of language skills. A new-born baby needs its mother to talk to it, not only for the comfort and security of hearing her voice, but to learn language, the ability to communicate, the tools with which to think and reason. Without language, a child cannot develop intellectually.

Socio-linguistic research in the 1960s vividly demonstrated that babies who were simply fed, clothed and kept warm developed physically but not mentally and were likely to be educationally disadvantaged in the long term. The same was true of young children who were not talked to and played with, who were left sitting in front of television screens.

It may be exasperating when a child asks "why?" for the umpteenth time, but that is precisely what he or she should be asking in order to develop natural curiosity and to learn.

Closely tied to the acquisition of linguistic building bricks is the understanding of moral, ethic and aesthetic values.

As a teacher, linguist and mother of two, I would not have wanted someone else to teach my children to speak - and consequently to think - and to teach them their values. That was my responsibility and privilege. (Which is not to say that I found staying at home and raising young children easy; as someone who had had a career and been used to daily contact with other adults and students, I found it difficult at times.) Regardless of how well qualified a childminder or a nursery nurse is, the chances are that a child will be sharing that person's attention and energies with several others, rather than enjoying a mother's more or less undivided attention.

Rather than push mothers of young children out to work by cutting their allowance and providing training, the Government should consider paying an allowance to mothers who choose to stay at home to raise their children for the benefit of those children - and ultimately of society in general.

Yvonne Graham is a former headmistress

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