Ed West

The state is the worst wicked stepmother of all

The state is the worst wicked stepmother of all
Text settings

What a fantastically stupid idea, I thought, reading the paper this morning. 

‘Parents who fail to show love and affection towards their children could be sent to prison for up to 10 years under a “Cinderella Law” to be announced in the Queen’s Speech in June, according to a report. 

‘The move will make “emotional cruelty” a criminal offence for the first time.

The decision was hailed as a “monumental step” forwards by a children’s charity, which said children could grow up with “lifelong mental health problems” or end up taking their own lives.’

The law would make it a criminal offence for any parent to impair a child’s ‘physical, intellectual, emotional, social or behavioural development’, criminalising emotional as well as physical abuse – which could be interpreted to mean almost every parent who ever lived, since we’ve all failed at some point to be perfect and given them enough affection. What about people who just aren’t very emotional towards their kids, yet provide adequate sustenance? Would Winston Churchill have been taken into care?

Love your children, or else the government will take them away – it’s almost as if New Labour never lost power.

Clearly parents who physically abuse their children are also more likely to emotionally abuse them, too; and an increase in the number of children being taken into care will lead to a decline in the number of children being murdered by parents or stepparents.

But there is a balance to be had here; if the state took away all children then the number murdered by parents would be zero, but that idea hasn’t been in fashion much since the Battle of Leuctra, and only overtly authoritarian regimes see child-rearing to be the responsibility of government. But this new proposal certainly does tip the balance between parents and state further towards the latter.

That balance has been shifting for a number of years now, largely because of disappearing social norms about parenting, and the decline of informal uses of coercion such as stigma and shame. We’re supposed to celebrate all family types, even if some have much higher rates of violence than others.

The new law gives an indirect hint at its target in the name; children are far more at risk of being abused by non-biological parents and this is known as ‘the Cinderella Effect’. ‘Cinderella’ is a classic example of a fairy tale that speaks an essential truth about mankind’s nature; that non-blood relations can be a threat to children, as any primatologist can tell you. This was a common problem when mortality rates among the parents of young children were high, but declined in the 18





However, the number of children raised without one of their parents has increased sharply in recent years, partly due to changing sexual mores but also the involvement of the state itself; the largest increase in non-marital births came after the 1977 Homeless Persons Act gave lone mothers priority on housing lists.

The Tory MP behind this proposal wrote, ‘The sad truth is that, until now, the Wicked Stepmother would have got away scot-free.’ Possibly, but there would not have been so many wicked stepmothers, or stepfathers, or mother’s current boyfriends, without the state in the first place.

Without social mores that encourage people to raise children in ways that best protect them, and without financial incentives to do so, the only alternative is towards a more Spartan view of the state as parent to us all; and a parent that hinders our physical, intellectual, emotional, social and behavioural development.

Written byEd West

Ed West is the author of The Diversity Illusion, 1215 and All That and is writing a series of books on medieval history

Topics in this articleSocietychild abusechildrenfamily