We care about two sweet, unabused little girls, but the thousands rotting in care homes hardly get a thought

Emerson put it well. "As soon as a child has left the room, his strewn toys become affecting," he wrote. In other words, those of us required to build a model plane with a fractious toddler may secretly yearn for quality time to be up. The deadline past, we shall be delighted - over a glass of New Zealand Sauvignon (kindly imported by hopefully non-homicidal nanny) and a debris of Lego sufficient to reconstruct the Spruce Goose - to regale glassy-eyed droppers-in with every detail of our child's progress. But only once he has left the room.

In leaving the country, the Bennett sisters, Jade and Hannah, went one better. Their disappearance to an Irish hideaway with their foster parents, Jennifer and Jeff Bramley, unleashed a torrent of sentimentalism. Even before the sisters' safe return and the start of Mrs Justice Hogg's hearing on whether the Bramleys would, after all, be allowed to adopt them, the public jury had supplied its verdict.

Cambridgeshire social services were castigated (justifiably on the evidence in the public domain) for thwarting the couple. Adoption procedures were labelled (as if such flaws were a surprise) a bureaucratic mess, lacking fairness or accountability. The girls' natural fathers, feckless and absentee parents, spoke respectively of seeking custody and becoming a "for ever daddy"; fuel for all-round revulsion.

But the Bramley story demonstrated an echo of such Damascene conversions in most of us. While the hopeless futures of children brought up in care homes, detailed in a recent report, failed to evince more than a whisper of public reaction, the story of two unknown little girls - well-fed, non-abused and cross-matched to a pair of sweet-faced portraits - inspired an almost proprietorial involvement in their fate. This public empathy was eclipsed only by the second child-centred story of the week.

The killing of Caroline Jongen by her Australian nanny was a freak tragedy demanding, by way of reaction, chiefly sorrow for the baby's parents and a vow to be more vigilant in choosing minders. Not good enough. Everyone wanted a slice of the Jongen story. Commentators told of how they had saved their children from certain death by detecting that Miss Too-Good-To-Be-True was actually a psychopath/serial arsonist/unstable bulimic prone to ingest ten tubs of Chunky Monkey ice-cream and stuff the cartons behind the Conran sofa. Others attacked the government's refusal to regulate nanny agencies, beyond awarding Kite marks to those attempting to weed out Category A-type applicants.

Behind the lurch from the public to the personal lies a very British anxiety. Disasters are a cue-card to worry about our own nanny-reared or child-minded offspring or, briefly and when prompted by the media, to fret for other people's children. But, however anguished our posturing over child welfare, inertia remains the norm. In a fortnight, local authorities will hand to the education department - against a background of no discernible media interest - audits on the provision demanded under the national childcare strategy; the supposed exit clause from our bottom-of-the-range, worst-in-Europe daycare.

The current shambles does not simply mean that fewer lone parents can work (although only 41 per cent do so, compared to 82 per cent in France). A better system would affect the way children thrive and might even colour the way we regard them. The French and Italians, accustomed to farming out their kids almost from birth, also treat them as social companions rather than Nintendo attachments.

Americans and the British - particularly those rich enough to buy themselves some distance from their offspring - are more ambivalent in their adoration of children. A recent television documentary tracked the experiences (predictably miserable) of the infants of rich British parents consigned, for weeks at a time, to a children's hotel reminiscent of an upmarket cattery, while a New Yorker cartoon illustrated the umbilical bond with a sketch of a one- year-old baby, clad in a nappy with a black box clipped to the waist. "So how many times do I have to beep you?" demands the irate mother, forced to trudge to the nursery.

Not the British way? Count the playground beepers - totem of a detached relationship between adult and child. That is not necessarily a problem, as long as we recognise that the hysteria over every high-profile media victim is evidence less of national maternalism than of a discomfort pitched somewhere between complicity and guilt.

This article first appeared in the 22 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Goodbye to all that boiled cabbage