Philosopher John Locke warned that children should not be given too much “unwholesome fruit” to eat. Three centuries later, misguided ideas about child-rearing are still rife. Many parents fret that their offspring will die unless ceaselessly watched. In America the law can be equally paranoid. In South Carolina this month Debra Harrell was jailed for letting her nine-year-old daughter play in a park unsupervised. The child, who had a mobile phone and had not been harmed in any way, was briefly taken into custody of the social services.
Ms Harrell’s draconian punishment reflects the rich world’s angst about parenting. By most objective measures, modern parents are far more conscientious than previous generations. Since 1965 labour-saving devices such as washing machines and ready meals have freed eight hours a week for the average American couple, but slightly more than all of that time has been swallowed up by childcare. Dads are far more hands-on than their fathers were, and working mothers spend more time nurturing their sprogs than the housewives of the 1960s did. This works for both sides: children need love and stimulation; and for the parents, reading to a child or playing ball games in the garden is more fulfilling than washing dishes.