Childhood


This is the text of this morning's Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2 (with Michael Ball, Michelle Collins, Barbara Windsor, and a snatch of Paul Heaton & Jacqui Abbott rehearsing).

“Children in tweed? Why would they put their children in tweed?!”

That's what I heard in the train to London yesterday. It's a classic of mishearing, isn't it? A bit like when my youngest son asked me (on a long drive through Germany when he was a child): “Dad, on Star Trek why do they say, 'Beat me up, Scottie'?”

It's dead easy to mishear, and then run away with a misunderstanding that can sometimes have serious consequences. When Jesus told his friends to “Suffer the little children”, he didn't mean that we should make the children suffer. (He meant 'allow them to come.) But, look around at the extent of children's poverty and unhappiness in this country – measured by all sorts of organisations – and you could be forgiven for thinking that we had a mandate to put children in their place.

One of the things Jesus was doing when he spoke about children was to bring them in from the margins of his culture – economically unproductive, but a useful pension scheme for when age has stopped you working – and place them centre stage. “If you treat your children as the future only, and not as the present, you've missed the point, he says.

Yet, this isn't about growing little monsters who think from infancy that the world revolves around them and owes them a living. It is, however, about growing children who know that they are loved and valued and taken seriously enough to have to learn how to engage in a complicated world.

Did you know that 62 years ago today the NME published the first official singles chart in the UK. Among the twelve songs on the list – and bypassing the Max Bygraves epic 'Cowpunchers Cantata' – was Jo Stafford's 'You belong to me'. Well, interpret that how you like, but what it says to me on this Children in Need day is: You have an obligation to treat your children well, to give them a good childhood with the best opportunities in life. They don't belong as a possession to be exploited or a commodity to be traded, but as an obligation to be honoured and a gift to be loved.

 

 

I was just getting my keyboard sharpened to write about the government's reported reform of child poverty measurement when I saw this from the excellent Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

I now don't need to write what I was going to write.

But, the story will run…

 

This is the text of this morning's Pause for Thought on the Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2:

Whenever I hear the phrase 'Children in Need' I hear the echo of something Jesus said in the gospels. Surrounded by a load of adults – probably men – he became aware of a child and said those famous words: “Suffer the little children to come unto me.” That's the old version – it actually means “let them come” -, but it's the one that has stuck for me.

Now, you could be forgiven for thinking that what he meant was that we should make the children suffer. Because it seems we do quite a good job of this in a variety of ways. If we didn't, then why is it necessary to have the Children in Need appeal every year?

I remember that story about Mahatma Gandhi coming to London for the first time. As he got to the bottom of the aircraft steps a journalist asked him what he thought of western civilisation. He replied: “I think it would be a very good idea.”

Now, he wasn't being miserable about it – he no doubt had that twinkle in his eye for which he was famed – but he did point up the question. Why, in this day and age, do so many children now live from foodbanks in one of the wealthiest countries on the planet?

Well, we can moan about it, or we can do something about it. The other striking thing about Jesus's teaching is the emphasis on generosity. Give it away. Don't be imprisoned by things and stuff, but love your neighbour and be generous. Hospitality runs through his life and teaching like Blackpool through a stick of rock.

If I was bidding for a juke box song this morning, I might be tempted to go for Graham Nash's 1970 song which not only tells parents to “teach your children well” – who can argue with that – but goes on to tell the children to “teach your parents well”. It's the grown-ups who need to learn, in the words of St Francis of Assisi, to give and not to count the cost.

This show raised three and a half million pounds last year. Surely there's more to spare this year?

“My sole concern as I write these lines is my stomach. All thinking and feeling, all wishes and hopes begin with food.”

So writes the anonymous author of the most harrowing war-time diary I have ever read: A Woman in Berlin. Even though she is writing as the Russians approach in 1945 and the infrastructure of German society has all but collapsed, her recognition of the need for food applies always and everywhere. And today, here in affluent England, if children come to school hungry, it is a stupid person who thinks that child is going to be able to learn and grow and concentrate and thrive.

So, it is good news that the Deputy Prime Minister has announced this evening that all infant school children are to be served free school meals from some time in 2014. In fact, the Children's Society briefed the Anglican bishops meeting in Oxford just before the announcement. Unmitigated good news on a day when we had been taking a sobering and serious look at children, young people, education and schools. The effects of poverty sat high in our consciousness.

Here is the context:

  • 3.5 million children live in poverty in the UK (after housing costs have been deducted).
  • Around 1.9 children live in workless households in the UK – higher than in any other European Union country.
  • Yet, 63% of all children in low income households live in families where at least one of the adults is in paid work. (But, this doesn't spell out that so many of these 'paid jobs' are part-time or very low-paid.)
  • In 1979 c.14% of children lived in poverty; in 2012 it had risen to 27%.
  • Rather than eradicating child poverty by 2020 (a government commitment in the Cild Poverty Act), it is estimated by the Institute for Fiscal Studies that the figure will increase by 800,000 – which means that by 2020 one in three children in the UK will be living in poverty.

Shocking? Or acceptable?

Food bank reports indicate that most people come to food banks on their way home from work. Which bangs another nail into the shameful and misleading political categorising of poor people into 'benefit scroungers' – those who refuse to work and cost the country millions. This lie has traction in the country at large, but the evidence points to serious problems for poor people who do work.

So, what about the children? Good news about the free school meals – whatever the political motivation behind announcing it today – and news that highlights the importance of food and the iniquity of poverty for a society that wants its children to grow into educated, creative and altruistic citizens.

Now, what about the other children in our schools? And what about tackling the causes of the child poverty that the government, by announcing its policy today, has explicitly acknowledged?

 

This is hardly an en example of being quick off the mark, but there has been no space since last night to write anything.

Yesterday evening saw the launch of an exhibition in Bradford Cathedral of fantastic photographs. The gallery includes black and white as well as colour pictures of scenes from the street in Durban, South Africa, and Burundi. They illustrate the reality of young lives blighted by homelessness, hopelessness and hunger – hunger for love, security and friendship. The are also examples of simple joy, playfulness and humour. So far, so good.

Then, as you hear the stories of those portrayed, you realise some of them are already dead.

Streetaction is a small charity working with slim resources to work with partners to offer some street children hope of a future. The partners on the ground in South Africa and Burundi demonstrate commitment and sacrifice in plugin away with these children and young people. The stories would take too long to recite here, but the pictures tell their story and the charity can tell more.

For now, if you can get into Bradford Cathedral, go and have a look at this moving gallery. The photography itself is powerful. The need to fund the work is great.

 

Is it possible any longer to live without electronic media? I write this on my laptop with my mobile phone next to me on my desk (I am expecting a call) and a load of tweets telling me to watch Sherlock on iPlayer.

The Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland (EKD), as part of its ten-year Reform Process, identifies every month a ‘Project of the Month’. (Which reminds me of when I read about the American funeral directors who were trying to improve ‘the bereavement experience’ by nominating a ‘Crem de Month’ award…) This is seen as an imaginative way to disseminate good practice, creative ideas and good stories. Today I got the EKD Newsletter (email ekdnewsletter@ekd.de)) and was struck by this month’s winner.

One week – no media involved getting groups of young people in Württemberg to hand over their mobile phones, not watch television and not use a computer for one whole week. If you read German, follow the link. Basically, each person kept a daily diary, recording their experiences – what was hard and what they discovered positively from the experience. Daily meetings and activities were run in order to keep the kids motivated. At the end of the week there was an evaluation of all that had been experienced and learned, and the phones, consoles, laptops, etc. were ritually returned. (The kids were probably dribbling with anticipation by this time…)

What is interesting is that many of the young people discovered new creativity, spent more time with their families and communicated more and better with them. You know – talking and old stuff like that.

Yes, some failed to make the week – often (interestingly) because the parents couldn’t bear missing their diet of television.

And the point of it all? To question the nature and volume of media consumption and to improve media literacy among the young people so that they are in more control of their media consumption rather than being controlled by it. One teacher commented of his class: “For one week we gave the children their childhood back.”

Apart from the imaginative nature of the project itself, it does touch on issues being raised in England: the way the media shape our minds, the nature of childhood, and how to measure the well-being or happiness of our children – given that British children appear to be some of the unhappiest in Europe.

Greece boils, the euro trembles, the world waits (most of us helplessly) to see what will emerge in the next few days. Our futures, our pensions, our securities depend on the decisions of the very people who led (or allowed to be led) the world into the economic mess it currently experiences. Protests aside, somehow life just carries on.

It still seems odd to me that the present government wants to measure the well-being of the people of Britain without reference to religious or other motivation for living or choosing. I wonder if such inconvenient ‘truths’ as the recent Barnardo’s findings will be taken into consideration in such research. When Jesus said that to enter the kingdom of God you have to become like a little child he might have been stating a fundamental truth about human society and not just making a Christian attitudinal observation: that the well-being of our children is an indicator of the health of our society or culture.

Back in 2000 Rowan Williams (then Archbishop of Wales) identified the commodification and sexualisation of children – with adults competing childishly with children instead of behaving like adults – in his book Lost Icons. He raised questions that went to the heart of our society’s obsessions, seeing behind the confident exterior some of the ugliness that was festering unhindered behind the curtains. He was largely ignored – not for the last time.

Back in 2009 The Children’s Society published the report of the Good Childhood Inquiry. Being the largest evidence-based research ever conducted into the experience of and consequences of childhood, it provoked some interesting and (often) self-justifying responses – particularly from observers who couldn’t question the evidence, but found the conclusions inconvenient or unconducive to personal lifestyle preferences. There were those who quickly tried to forget it.

Following publication of Barnardo’s latest poll results this week, the airwaves have been full of debate about why British children are the unhappiest in Europe. But this again is inconvenient because it questions our values, priorities and lifestyle preferences.

This comes close to home for me not because of the events going on in London and other major cities around the world, but because I have just spent the day in Bradford at a Clergy Study Day where serious collective attention was being paid to issues of power, poverty and provision in relation to the so-called ‘Big Society’. (This day was planned a year ago, well before I even knew I was coming here, and the theme was clearly on the church’s radar well before the Occupy movement was even conceived.) Clergy deal every day with these issues on the ground.

Politicians and bankers might well have serious charges to answer, but that doesn’t let the rest of us off the hook. Why do we persist in ignoring inconvenient voices? Why do we ignore the evidence and continue to allow – or even foster – a culture that makes our children so miserable? Or do we just have to conclude that, actually, our children have just got it wrong?

We need to dig deeper and more honestly if we are to understand our cultural malaise. But, understanding won’t necessarily translate into action unless we genuinely have the will to change.

Or should that be, ‘Martin Narey, quite contrary’?

Martin NareyMartin Narey is Chief Executive of Barnardo’s and no stranger to controversy. He has been intelligent, brave and outspoken in a completely reasonable way about a range of social issues from prisons and penal reform through to children and their parents. Today he is reported as having called for more children of inadequate parents to be taken into care at birth in order to prevent them being damaged beyond repair in “families that can’t be fixed”. He is a brave man to suggest this because he knows his view will be seen as paternalistic and ‘judgmental’ (he called it ‘illiberal heresy’) and he will call down upon his own head the indignant wrath of social liberals who assume that such a policy would be upsetting. Here is what he said:

If you can take a baby very young and get them quickly into a permanent adoptive home, then we know that is where we have success. That’s a view that is seen as a heresy among social services, where the thinking is that if someone, a parent, has failed, they deserve another chance. My own view is that we just need to take more children into care if we really want to put the interests of the child first.

We can’t keep trying to fix families that are completely broken. It sounds terrible, but I think we try too hard with birth parents. I have seen children sent back to homes that I certainly wouldn’t have sent them back to. I have been extremely surprised at decisions taken. If we really cared about the interests of the child, we would take children away as babies and put them into permanent adoptive families, where we know they will have the best possible outcome.

Narey has touched a raw nerve here. One response, from Philippa Stroud of the Centre for Social Justice caught my attention for what it assumed about fathers:

We need far more early intervention to try to stop this disintegration of the family we are seeing, but we would like to see more working with these families. What we recommend is the model of the mother and baby going into care, filling that hole and giving the whole family a chance.

Is it simply assumed now that such dysfunctional families no longer have a resident, involved male in the home or in the equation? I just ask the question, but I fear the answer.

childhoodAs Jenni Murray has observed in an article in today’s Observer, simple or simplistic approaches to rescuing damaged children (such as exclusion from school) won’t help either damaged children or the society they themselves go on to damage. In a culture dominated by claims to ‘rights’, we are not very good at working out how competing rights are to be prioritised or regulated. Does the parent’s right to have or raise a child outweigh society’s judgment that such a right has lower priority than that of the child deemed to be being damaged? It is a hard question and anyone who offers a simple answer should immediately be dismissed; easy answers usually come from people who have no experience of the reality of such dilemmas.

I am not sure that the care system is the best place for damaged (or potentially damaged) children; but leaving them to poor parents who cannot cope (possibly who themselves have been damaged by their own upbringing) is not an answer. Nor is parading them on tabloid front pages with headlines such as ‘Hell Boys’ or ‘Little Savages’.

This week sees the celebration in the Anglican calendar of the birth of the Virgin Mary. Actually we know nothing about this particular event and a lot of Anglicans will wonder why we are celebrating it in the first place. But it might make some of us reflect on the fact that she grew into a teenager who got pregnant in a suspicious society, nearly got dumped by her (probably older) fiance, gave birth to a son who grew up to be disobedient (look at what he did when he was 12) and neglect his responsibilities to his widowed mother when he went walkabout at the age of 30 – before getting executed for sedition by a society that knew all about ‘order’ and sorting out the ‘dysfunctionals’.

Mary herself sang a ‘heretical’ song on hearing that she would give birth to one who would turn the political and economic orthodoxies on their head. So, if Martin Narey is being quite contrary, then he is in good company.

In my last post I touched on the question of ‘touch‘ and how the absence (or prevention) of it in childhood might have consequences we are only now beginning to discover.

I still think there are two main factors in this: (a) touch has become sexualised so that it can be seen by some as ‘assault’, but evidence of deviant sexual intent; (b) in a litigious culture we try to prevent costly (in terms of finance and reputation) legal redress by prohibiting forms of behaviour involving touch that might be misconstrued later. The effect of this latter dynamic is, of course, that rules or conventions that purport to protect vulnerable people actually are designed to protect institutions from prosecution under a range of legislation.

John Humphrys, Devil's AdvocateWell, this is obviously an area for fruitful discussion and exploration. But, it has also led me back to John Humphrys‘ wonderful book, Devil’s Advocate, published in 1999 but very pertinent to these issues. What reminded me of this was his opening chapter on The Victim Culture. He vividly describes how people of earlier generations recognised that not everything in life is either predictable or nice, but you got on with it; now, however, we are in the ridiculous situation of seeking financial compensation for everything from hurt feelings to doing the job we are paid for. He questions why a paramedic (for example) should get compensation for witnessing carnage in a road traffic accident when that is actually what his job is about and what his salary is for.

Humphrys analyses this in the amusingly scathing language we might expect from him. You can hear the raised Welsh tone of incredulity as he pushes a question that is being deflected by an embarrassed politician or commentator. But the point he makes is essentially that when we see ourselves as ‘victims‘ we cease to take responsibility for ourselves. He highlights the fear of taking risks, emphasising that a risk-free culture is neither desirable nor possible. He identifies the ‘cult of experts’ and the ‘new priesthood’ of medicine as big factors in creating the culture that now stops us letting our children grow up as children.

Now, I wonder if this provides the context for exploring the ‘do not touch’ phenomenon. Clearly, it cannot be healthy for our children to grow up fearing every adult as a potential danger (paedophile, abuser, oppressor, etc). Furthermore, it cannot be good for our children to grow up thinking that everybody’s motives for everything must be suspect – that nobody can be trusted.

The question is: how do we restrain the very few people who are dangerous and protect the very few people who are vulnerable without misshaping the whole culture and thereby unintentionally damaging the next couple of generations of children who will become untrusting adults and pass on to their children similar risk-free suspicions and fear?

52983562SB008_CheeserollingI wish I knew the answer. We did our own little bit by letting our kids climb trees, fall over, get dirty, run risks and learn to fail as well as succeed. Help them be streetwise, by all means, but don’t let them desert the streets because of some ridiculous generated fear of uncertainty or spurious dangers. Humphrys cites cheese rolling in Gloucestershire and accidents with tea cosies in his damnation of the risk-averse, victim-led culture we have created.

I don’t know … maybe we have to find ways of legislating for compulsory ‘appropriate’ touch in schools and elsewhere. Maybe we will have to insist that children in school hold hands with their teacher and each other at least twice a day. Maybe, along with Humphrys, we’ll have to insist that children go out in the snow and risk breaking their leg while having fun in the playground – instead of keeping them inside, protected from the (merely) possible danger, but really protecting the school from litigation if any child enjoyed himself so much as to fall over in the process.

Oh… and Humphrys comes up with a phrase I had not heard before, but it made me laugh out loud on the Tube in London this afternoon: …’ which is about as much use as a cat flap on a submarine.’

OECD (Children)The international Organisation for Economic Development (OECD), has produced a report on comparative rates of teenage pregnancy, drunkenness and young people not in education, employment or training (neets). Doing Better for Children makes some interesting observations about the effectiveness of spending on children and teenagers in different countries and poses some interesting questions. The Guardian has provided a useful summary of its main points (despite not relating these to the Children’s Society‘s Good Childhood Inquiry I blogged about earlier in 2009).

Set that alongside another report of a survey conducted by the NSPCC and Bristol University and a picture begins to grow. Of the 1,353 teenage girls and boys questioned across the UK, nearly 90% of girls aged 13 to 17  – and a similar number of boys – had been in an intimate relationship. But consider the following observations as summarised by the Guardian:

  • 25% of girls had suffered physical violence, including being slapped, punched or beaten by their boyfriends.
  • Of 91 young people questioned at length, one in six of the girls said that they had been pressured into having sex and one in 16 claimed to have been raped. Others who took part in the study said that they had been pressured or forced to kiss or intimately touch their boyfriends.
  • A small minority of the boys – one in 17 – reported being pressured or forced into sexual activity and almost one in five suffered physical violence in a relationship.
  • Many of the girls said they felt they had to put up with the abuse because they felt scared or guilty, or feared they would lose their boyfriend.
  • The NSPCC said that having an older boyfriend placed young girls at a higher risk of abuse, with three-quarters of them saying they had been victims.
  • Young women from a family where an adult had been violent towards them were also at greater risk.
  • For boys, having a violent group of friends actually made it more likely that they would become a victim, or be a perpetrator of violence, in a relationship.

Apparently, the report concludes that schools need to raise awareness of relationships where there is harmful, controlling and abusive behaviour. The Guardian report ends with the following:

Diane Sutton, head of policy and public affairs at the NSPCC, said: “It is shocking to find so many young people view violence or abuse in relationships as normal. Boys and girls are under immense peer pressure to behave in certain ways and this can lead to disrespectful and violent relationships, with girls often bearing the brunt. Young people need to learn to respect each other.” She added that parents and schools could perform a vital role in teaching children about loving and safe relationships and what to do if they are suffering from violence or abuse.

Not suprisingly, these rather disturbing findings got plenty of air-play today and I picked up on an interview on BBC Radio 5Live in which a policeman was describing the teenage behaviour he regularly meets on the streets. He stated that it would take generations to change behaviour and the attitudes that lead young people to behave in such ways that betray low self-esteem and immaturity in relationships. He was followed by a woman claiming that if teenage lads were cuddled and hugged more, they wouldn’t need to demand such affection from girls – which she clearly saw as a form of inappropriate transference.

JordanI thought this was quite interesting. Not only do we live in a highly sexualised society in which we have young girls saying on television that their goal in life is ‘to be like Jordan‘ (Katie Price, the glamour model best known for her dysfunctional relationships and pneumatic breasts) – ‘famous’ – but we also grow our children to be suspicious of all adults, to fear for their safety and to avoid touch. Now, this might be delicate and contentious, but let’s speculate about a couple of the possible contributors to this state of affairs:

1. I have vivid memories of being upset at primary school and being hugged by a teacher and sat on the lap of another teacher while she read a story to the class. I was six years old and I was grateful. That could not happen today. I recently heard a teacher describe on the radio the problems of being in a classroom with (possibly) one other classroom assistant when a child has an accident or needs to go to the loo. How can they cope when the child has to be accompanied by two adults and there is no one left to look after the class? Why be accompanied by two adults? Because we have now decided that no adult can be trusted with a child alone and that legal protection demands suspicion.

And what does this sort of arrangement – brought in for very good reasons in the wake of serious child abuse cases – do to the way our growing children view the world, adults, normality and relationships? All adults are to be fundamentally suspected of being deviant? Nobody can be trusted – or nobody should be trusted? And is this sort of arrangement really for the protection of children from sexual harm, or is it simply to provide the employers from legal redress or suspicion in the light of any allegations of such abuse? The distinction matters.

Lost Icons2. Does the lack of touch offered to children create a later unconscious craving for touch/affection that is then satisfied by ‘intimate’ relationships that are both immature and premature? Rowan Williams touched on this in his powerful critique of our society’s view of children in Lost Icons and I picked it up in my own book Finding Faith. Is the woman on the radio right to surmise that children/teenagers are increasingly seeking intimacy because they lack affection at home, never get touched appropriately by other human beings and are only given sexualised models of relating by our dominant culture? And is this particularly the case for boys who have no idea how to become men because there are no respect-worthy role models in their home?

This is sensitive stuff. But I worry that a society shaped by an antipathy to potential abuse does not necessarily create a healthy positive view of relationships. Maybe this is yet another example of the law of unintended consequences. It might be that we have no alternative but to protect the few by condemning the many. But, I wonder if there really are links between the findings of the OECD report, the conclusions of the NSPCC report and the observations of our own eyes as we wonder how this can be turned round in future generations.

Perhaps we need a wider public debate about this. In the meantime, … answers on a postcard?

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