Opinion: Setting nanny's boundaries

Rachel O'Brien, director of external affairs at the Institute for Public Policy Research

I had a bad-mother morning last week. Facing an important exam that day, my daughter comes down for a much needed breakfast ... to find there was none. The milk had turned.

Confessions are fine but if anyone dares to offer me unsolicited advice, my blood boils. Don't people understand the time pressures of work, and can't they see that my poor parenting is none of their business?

But is parenting private? This question was central to a raft of events last week. In her new book, Madeleine Bunting draws attention to the impact of the overwork culture on care for children, the sick and the elderly.

Speaking at the Parent Child conference, Margaret Hodge announced more funding for hotlines offering advice to parents. Trade and industry secretary Patricia Hewitt floated the idea of Parent Direct, where personal advisers would help find childcare and negotiate flexibility with employers. In the background, the best brains buzz with the options for increasing - even making universal - public provision of childcare.

Meanwhile, the Government faces defeat in the Lords by a cross-bench alliance of peers demanding reform of the law on smacking. This issue brings into sharp relief the Government's sensitivities to accusations of over-intervention in the private lives of citizens. It is right to worry.

Most of us want government to address the problems that undermine family life. Most parents are sympathetic to the idea of support provision, and many feel more should be available to all parents in times of crisis, particularly through the challenging teenage years. There is wide public support for tackling child poverty.

However, we need more creative thinking to ensure our primary response is not just how government, public services and charities take up the slack when parents are unable to care or when the demands of employers and the labour market leave us struggling to find time. We need more interventions - perhaps like Parent Direct - that help people to find time and the ability to cope with the duties of caring.

- Lisa Harker is recovering from an accident.

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