In our increasingly fractured lives, is it a surprise the happiest families are those you see playing together?
Sunday October 14, 2007
A society that fails its children is almost worthless. Two reports out last week seem to place Britain unambiguously in that category. The first says that our children are reaching primary school barely able to write their own names or string a coherent sentence together. The second, a study conducted by Professor Robin Alexander at the head of a group of Cambridge researchers, reveals that primary schools have been engulfed by ‘a wave of antisocial behaviour, materialism and the cult of celebrity’. It confirms Unicef’s impression earlier this year that British children are the unhappiest in the Western world.One thing is plain. Though the government is busily stealing Tory policies to support marriage, this is not all its fault. Ministers can only do so much and there can be no mistaking Labour’s good intentions on education. Around £21bn has been invested in schemes around the SureStart policy alone and a great deal more through the education system. The failure, if it is as catastrophic as the reports make out, cannot be blamed on the system, on the lack of funds, nor even entirely on the widening gap between rich and poor, though, unsurprisingly, this does show up in the government’s annual assessments of children’s first year at school.
The main culprit stares us in the face: it is us. The values of British adult society, our individualism and the bewildering dissolution of the things that bind us together are ruining the lives of many members of the next generation. Actually, ‘have ruined’ is more accurate.
It seems we don’t know how to listen to our children; we don’t spend enough time with them; we don’t give them security at home, on the way to school or in school; and we don’t allow them freedom to stretch themselves and explore their capabilities. The affirmation that children need is commonly wanting, as is proper rest and nourishment.
This doesn’t apply to all children, but the reports do indicate we should be deeply concerned about the emotional well-being of a substantial number. It is almost too shaming to fill out the picture. One thinks of the many poorer societies on which we look down, yet which manage to produce much happier children. This is to say nothing of the vast wealth in Britain and the opportunities that are somehow out of reach for so many. We seem to be dealing with an accelerated social dystrophy that, according to a family learning co-ordinator I spoke to, has taken root in the parents who are now in their twenties and early thirties.
The symptoms sometimes seen in their children are as follows: acute anxiety about traffic, gangs of older children, robbery, graffiti and rubbish; a lack of respect for one another and for authority; and obsessions with new gadgetry and celebrity culture, derived from long periods watching television. These children appear lonely, insecure, underachieving weirdos and one of the oddest things about them is that their minds are filled with the coming disaster of climate change.
That may tell us that we have failed to maintain the Chinese walls between an adult and a child’s awareness. The traditional information barrier that existed between parents and children on so many things, but especially sexuality and violence, has collapsed, leaving many children at once worldly and baffled, but also badly behaved. They have been inducted prematurely into the adult world of stress.
Dr Anthony Seldon, Tony Blair’s biographer and the master (head) of Wellington College, says: ‘The degree of testing is an absurdity. Schools are in fear of Ofsted – whereas the relationship should be one of respect – and that fear is passed on to the children.’ The obsessions with targets is certainly the government’s fault and let us not forget that another part of this early initiation into adult life is the sinister insistence by government that all children should be fingerprinted. Precisely what for, no one is able to say, but it seems a sign of things to come and it cannot be good for children to be treated like criminal suspects by the state.
One of the fascinating strands of the anecdotal account is the limitation of the generation born after 1975. It is thought that their failure to connect with their children may start with the outward-facing pushchair instead of the traditional pram in which the baby faced its mother. This early communication teaches the baby language, as well as the ability to read facial expressions. There is evidence to suggest that this generation of parents who were brought up on videos and instant visual gratification are not going through cooing routines. There are fewer nursery rhymes, less song, storytelling and reading. All this is taken over by TV, which leaves parents free to think about themselves and to work late. There may be a lot in what the family learning co-ordinator said to me; after all, she teaches parents to relate to their children so that they may in turn teach them. ‘If an infant is used to not speaking, he or she doesn’t know how to listen either. And when you don’t listen you don’t learn.’
She went on to say this also explained why children are often bad at understanding the messages in people’s expressions. Hence the menace and edginess to be found in British playgrounds. What comes from this is insecurity, bullying and the beginnings of gang culture. Can it really be that we are producing some primary school-aged children with what amounts to a degree or two of acquired autism?
Anthony Seldon has done much work in this area. To him, there are some obvious causes: parents working long hours; children being locked into technology for an average of four to five hours a day; the decline of the family meal; and parents not talking to their children. ‘A good parent,’ he says, ‘will talk to their child every day – sit down and let the child speak.’
As with Iain Duncan Smith’s recent social justice report, which looked into family breakdown, he emphasises lack of social cohesion but also the loss of security of attachment, the lack of acceptance and affirmation and the fear of bullying on the way to and from – and at – school. The main part of his argument is that society needs to be rebalanced. ‘In search of self-realisation, we have become thoughtless of our children, in fact negligent,’ he said. ‘There is no panacea. But there is a direction to take. It’s all about teaching harmony within oneself and harmony with others.’ That must apply to parents as well as children.
In July, during the worst of the summer rain, I saw something that struck me as quite rare. A family of five had paused on their walk along a country lane so that the three children could scramble up a bank where there was a surprisingly good crop of wild strawberries. The children were wet and caked in mud. They were made to share out the strawberries like precious sweets. Then they went on their way, the parents oblivious to their children disappearing into the woods and ambushing each other with handfuls of mud. I haven’t seen three happier children for a long time
On that Saturday afternoon expedition in the rain, you have nearly everything that children need – exercise, attention from their parents, but not undue fussing, a feeling of security and of family, simplicity of entertainment, natural surroundings and a chance for the two sisters and their brother to relate to one another away from TV, their friends and Facebook. The only thing required from the parents was time.