Four million children miss out on Christmas with both parents

I don’t remember my first few Christmases as a child. In any case I only had three of them before my mum and dad decided to call it a day. The first Christmas that I remember vividly was when I was about eleven. By then, my mother had remarried a lovely man who has been a brilliant stepfather ever since.

But a ‘father figure’ – however wonderful he might be – is not the same as having a ‘father’ around. My most emotive childhood memories involve the few times a year that I saw my real father. Think what could have been if we’d all been one happy family. It wasn’t to be. As an adult, my biggest issues have concerned my father and how that has in turn affected my own marriage and fatherhood. That’s a story for another day.

Suffice to say that I missed out.

For that first Christmas in 1964 that I spent with just mum and my brother, family breakdown was still something of a rarity. In that year, there were some 25,000 divorces affecting 50,000 children.

According to an analysis I’ve just done of data from the 1961 Census a few years earlier – some 8.8% of children lived with lone parents at the time. Add on a bit for step-families – for which there’s no data – and we’re talking about one in ten children like me facing Christmas with just one parent.

Now fast forward to 2011 – because that’s when the most recent Census was conducted – and family breakdown had become something of an epidemic. In 2011, there were 57,000 divorces affecting 100,000 children in England and Wales. But that’s just the couples who were married. According to research I did a year ago, you can double these numbers for cohabiting parents.

That makes four times as many children under sixteen experiencing family breakdown today compared to when I was a child.

My latest analysis of data from the 2011 Census – today’s Times here and full briefing note here – shows that there are now 4.2 million children not living with both parents. One in three children today won’t spend Christmas with both parents.

Does that shock you? It’s undoubtedly sad. It’s also way too high.

Back in the 1960s, what couples did well was commit. Almost any couple having a baby was married. So if you were going to have a child, you had made a pretty clear commitment to one another beforehand. Of course there were also social taboos that made it hard for parents to leave difficult marriages. That all changed at the end of the 1960s with the divorce law reforms.

Today we have pretty much the reverse situation. What is much better today is the lack of taboos that stop couples leaving difficult relationships. But there are also a great many couples who have children without making a clear commitment to the future. If you doubt that, just look at the concentration of family breakdown in the first three years of parenthood among unmarried couples. Planned parenthood tends to go more with marriage than cohabitation. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that parents cope better with the stress and exhaustion of sleepless nights if they’ve made a prior commitment before having children.

So, one in ten – the level of breakdown back in the 1960s – is probably too few. One in three – the level of breakdown today – is definitely too much.

Four million children is far too much. I have no idea what a reasonable level of family breakdown should look like. But it isn’t what we’ve got today.

We’ve done well to break social taboos that make it hard to leave bad relationships. What we need to rediscover is the importance of prior commitment. 38 Children in lone parent families 1961-2011


5 thoughts on “Four million children miss out on Christmas with both parents

  1. Marx, Lenin, Freud, Marcuse, Kinsey, et al have a lot to answer for re: the ailing state of family life today. Tragically the Church has not helped by being so complacent & spineless.

    Perhaps our present crisis will be a wake up call & re-energise faith & family. But these are very dark days for healthy family life.

  2. I have two comments on issues currently discussed.
    Firstly, regarding the distinction between marriage and cohabitation. I agree that marriage is better but for a clear reason that is generally ignored. We are a highly social species and have evolved practices that stabilize the relationship between parents. But it is central to this that the relationship is recognized within the community. Ceremony that involves the community and is seen by the couple as serious in this context is important. If this needs religion because religion is central to the community then this matters but it is the sen commitment that is vital. A fancy marriage in a church may or may not carry this commitment. It is serious Involvement that matters.
    Secondly, The argument regarding the adverse affect of tax credit change on cohabitation is flawed. What is at issue is that a person cannot afford to live alone on a minimum wage. Thus cohabitation becomes necessary but the case for support is then reduced since each is better off. there is no answer to this that does not involve social housing and higher wages and more jobs and better craft education, etc, etc, etc. But this fact is shirked by Government.

  3. Pingback: Giving cohabiting couples the same rights as married couples will undermine men’s commitment |

  4. Pingback: Stay married longer, pay less tax. Good idea? |

  5. Pingback: Family breakdown is seriously understated in official figures |

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