Even Tony Abbott by now probably realises that he shouldn’t have used the word “gift” to refer to his daughters’ virginity, although some people (including, remarkably some who call themselves feminists, such as Katharine Murphy in the Sydney Morning Herald yesterday) still claim not to understand what all the fuss is about.
It was George Brandis, however, who went one better by claiming that Julia Gillard’s childlessness made her less of an authority on teenage s-xuality. So Gillard, a woman without children, is for that reason less qualified to talk about the behavior of women without children, while Abbott and Brandis, who share neither attribute, are more qualified. One could hardly hope for a better illustration of our bizarre attitudes towards young people.
In reality, Brandis has it exactly the wrong way around. The perspective of the childless is exactly what we need when it comes to talking about the interests of children and young people, and it is much too frequently ignored.
Before going any further, let me acknowledge the obvious: most parents have their children’s welfare very much at heart, and the majority, despite the social pressures that try to hurry them into childbearing with no preparation, do a perfectly satisfactory job. Nothing I say is intended in any way as an attack on parents.
Nonetheless, parents come to these issues with a particular perspective. They inevitably tend to see their children as, well, children, rather than as responsible individuals in their own right. All adults know, having been there themselves, that children grow up into adults, but it’s an occupational hazard of parenting that they are most likely to forget that.
A childless adult, seeing a teenager, sees a fellow-citizen, a younger version of him- or herself. A parent is all too likely to see the small child that the teenager once was.
Yet when we deal with children’s issues, we tend, like Brandis, to privilege the point of view of the parent. School councils, for example, typically consist of parents and teachers (who of course have their own issues); fine, perhaps, for looking after children in a paternalistic sense, but not so good when it comes to their rights and their independence. Including some representatives who have never had children of their own might help to redress the balance.
Yes, of course I’m generalising, of course there are exceptions. Some parents are able to transcend their roles, and some of those without children will have hangups, prejudices or vested interests of their own. But don’t we infantilise young people enough already? Surely youth policy could benefit from remembering that being a parent does not make one an instant expert, and from paying some attention to the much-neglected perspective of the childless.