“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?

 

It’s a weird world. I posted on 21 February stuff related to the concerns that prompted 43 Church of England bishops, backed by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, to sign a letter to the press. Published today in the Sunday Telegraph, it has caused a bit of noise.

Clearly, the substance is not the issue, or it would have hit the headlines some time ago. It is the fact that a pile of bishops has signed it that makes it a story. And that’s good.

Let’s get one thing straight: this letter is not anti-government or anti-Cameron; it is pro-children.

wpid-Photo-9-Feb-2013-1604.jpgAnd another thing: read some of the comment threads on this story on news websites and a repeated (outraged) question has to do with the competence of bishops to dare to voice concerns in this way. Who are they to speak? Well, (a) we are people who participate in civil society, (b) we also have a voice with others in the democratic process, (c) we have people in every community in the land and are probably closer to the ground than most politicians, (d) it is our responsibility to speak truth without fear or self-regard, (e) if we can make a voice heard, then we have a responsibility to do so, and (f) such questioning is just silly and simply distracts from the issue at hand.

Thirdly, the question of priorities remains unanswered: we can bail out banks to the tune of billions of pounds, but it’s the poor who have to pay? The government’s language has become increasingly and deliberately disingenuous, lumping people on welfare benefits into the category of ‘feckless scroungers’ who lie in bed watching other people go to work. Yet, they know that most people being hit by welfare cuts and the bedroom tax are low-paid working people. Why is this being done? (See the recent report The lies we tell ourselves – another intrusion by those pesky Christians who really should be silenced…)

Here’s the letter as published:

Dear editor,

Next week, Members of the House of Lords will debate the Welfare Benefit Up-rating Bill.

The Bill will mean that for each of the next three years, most financial support for families will increase by no more than 1%, regardless of how much prices rise.

This is a change that will have a deeply disproportionate impact on families with children, pushing 200,000 children into poverty. A third of all households will be affected by the Bill, but nearly nine out of ten families with children will be hit.

These are children and families from all walks of life. The Children’s Society calculates that a single parent with two children, working on an average wage as a nurse would lose £424 a year by 2015.

A couple with three children and one earner, on an average wage as a corporal in the British Army, would lose £552 a year by 2015.

However, the change will hit the poorest the hardest. About 60% of the savings from the uprating cap will come from the poorest third of households. Only 3% will come from the wealthiest third.

If prices rise faster than expected, children and families will no longer have any protection against this. This transfers the risk of high inflation rates from the Treasury to children and families.

This is simply unacceptable.

page1image19112
Children and families are already being hit hard by cuts to support including to Tax Credits, maternity benefits, and help with housing costs. They cannot afford this further hardship penalty.

We are calling on Members of the House of Lords to take action to protect children from the impact of this Bill.

I think that when Jesus used the phrase he probably meant something different.

The British Parliament is currently debating what is sexily known as the Benefit Uprating Bill. Basically, this puts into law what the Chancellor announced in the 2012 Autumn Statement: to limit the rate at which most key benefits and tax credits are increased by just 1% for the next three years. This happens to be well below the expected rate of inflation.

Put to one side for a moment the conundrum that never gets addressed, viz why the rich need to be incentivised by keeping more wealth whilst the poor need to be incentivised by being made poorer. (This simply means that society pays for the consequences in other ways.) What this 'benefit uprating' means is:

  • costs of living are expected to rise faster than support increases to cover these additional costs;
  • based on average earnings for their profession, a single-parent primary school teacher, with two children stands to lose £424 a year by 2015. A nurse with two children could lose £424, and an army second lieutenant with three children could lose £552 a year. (Parents affected include an estimated 300,000 nurses and midwives, 150,000 primary school teachers and 40,000 armed forces personnel.)
  • coming on top of a number of other wide-ranging cuts to benefits and tax credits for children and families, (for example, with the 1% cap coming on top of previously announced freezes) by 2015-16 Child Benefit will have increased by just 2% in the course of half a decade.

It is the impact on children that should cause us most concern as this is disproportionate. The Government’s own impact assessment suggests that around 30% of all households will be affected, but 87% of families with children will be affected, including 95% of single parent families. The Children's Society estimates that 11.5 million children are in families affected and notes that whilst the Bill will affect children and families from all walks of life, children in the poorest families will be affected the most. The government’s impact assessment shows that about 60% of the savings from the uprating cap will come from the poorest third of households. Only 3% will come from the wealthiest third.

No surprise, then, that the Children's Society and other concerned parties are urging a re-think – that benefits and tax credits paid on behalf of children should be removed from the scope of the Benefit Uprating Bill. This would mean removing benefits including Child Benefit, Child Tax Credit, and child additions within Universal Credit.

The demand from food banks is increasing alarmingly. Schools are increasingly reporting children beginning the day without having had anything to eat. As I said in response to a request from my local Bradford newspaper:

Child poverty does not just make life a little bit miserable for a child now; it affects the whole of their life, their physical growth, their education, aspiration and life opportunities. This is bad for children, families, schools and society. And it is a scandal in a so-called civilised society. We must ask serious questions about our priorities and government ministers must be made aware of the human consequences of policies made behind desks.

The figures for Bradford can be seen here. What statistics don't show is the complex of ways in which childhood poverty is destructive of so much and of so many. This isn't just about welfare or 'scroungers' – it impacts on all of us and needs some serious attention. Mahatma Gandhi was once asked on his arrival at Heathrow Airport what he thought of western civilisation; he responded: “I think it would be a very good idea.” If our civilisation is measured by our treatment of the most vulnerable in our society, then we have questions to ask about our priorities.

And, while this reality bites, the government is also thinking of changing the way child poverty is calculated. You can read the Church of England's response here, summarised in this statement by the Bishop of Leicester:

The real issue is committing to, and resourcing, an effective long-term strategy to tackle child poverty, rather than finding alternative ways of measuring it.

 

The forecast was awful, but the reality turned out nice. The weather in York, that is. Yesterday's torrential rain gave way this morning to blue skies and a big yellow thing in the sky. If yesterday reflected the mood of people arriving for the General Synod, today shines a different light into our concerns… despite all the shouty 'noises off'.

I spoke with a journalist recently who suggested that we arrive at Synod, keep behind our battle lines, then start arguing about sex and women. The reality is a little less dramatic, hugely less violent, and considerably more interesting. This morning, for example, we met in 40 groups of a dozen people for worship, Bible study, discussion and thinking. The conversation in my group led my thinking towards the 'debate-everyone-is-waiting-for-and-shouting-about': women bishops. What follows isn't a dig or a pretence at a solution, just a suggestive reflection derived from the reading we were looking at.

In John 18 Jesus has prayed for the unity of his 'body'. (Presumably, he included Judas the betrayer, Peter the denier, and Thomas the doubter in this.) He then waits with his feckless friends in the garden of olive trees – olives being destined for crushing if the life is to flow from them for the nurture of others. What is remarkable is that Jesus, having taken considerable time to pray and think, now waits for the moment of truth (literally). Three things struck me about him in John's description of this most agonising moment:

  1. Jesus was in control of himself. In modern psychospeak he was 'centred'. Judas, the religious authorities and the Roman soldiers might think they are in control of him, but they don't see that they have no power over him. He knows, he owns what is to happen, he chooses to be here and nowhere else. They can kill him, but that's all.
  2. He didn't play the victim. Contentious church debates too often revolve around emotive language and hierarchies of victimhood. This gets us nowhere. If some circles cannot be squared, someone is going to be 'hurt'. Someone is always going to be hurt when decisions are made about anything of any import. But the decisions need to be made without accusations rooted in perceptions of victimhood. We then move on and take responsibility for what we do in the light of those decisions.
  3. He didn't blame anyone else. He didn't start throwing olive stones at the guards. He took responsibility upon himself and refused to blame others for the situation in which he found himself or the decisions he was now bound to take.

This applies today because too much talk is about perceived (even if not intended) threat. The synod needs to take stock, make its decisions and then see where we go from there. There will be both positive and negative consequences whatever we decide in relation to the women bishops legislation. But we need to eschew the language of blame, of victimhood and of threat, if we want to connect this morning's Bible study with Monday's synodical debate.

Anyway, today has also involved a good debate about engagement with the wider church in the world and how to encourage even more links with other provinces, dioceses, parishes and sister churches. Among the many fringe lunches, I went to hear more about the Near Neighbours scheme at work in several of our cities. The afternoon was taken up with legal matters relating to money, Europe and the Church Commissioners. I had a good hour with the excellent German ecumenical guest before dinner with the Children's Society and an evening on the ecclesiology of Fresh Expressions.

In other words, most of what we are doing here is not about women bishops or sex and there is little conflict about. Contrary to popular reportage or assumption, the church is facing outwards and looking at its engagement with the many worlds that make up the world. Monday will come – with all its immense challenges – but so will Tuesday. And Wednesday. Life will carry on, new challenges and opportunities will present themselves, new conflicts will emerge and new alliances be forged. And God will still be God, the church will still be Christ's, and our Christian vocation will not have changed.

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.

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?

The (Church of England) Children’s Society has today issued the findings of its report into Good Childhood. These findings are being debated in the media and the newspapers ahead of publication of the full report on Thursday 5 February.

The Archbishop of Canterbury is no late-comer to this debate, having spoken and written extensively about the state of ‘childhood’ in Britain – not least in his dense book, Lost Icons: Reflections on Cultural Bereavement (T&T Clark, 2000). I dared to summarise some of what he said in my book Finding Faith: Stories of Music and Life (Chapter One: Penny Lane).

The Archbishop’s Afterword to the inquiry report is worth reading in full, so I’ll quote it below for those who want to read it. What will be interesting is how quickly those commentators will react who encourage good research, but will have an ideological prejudice against some of the conclusions drawn from the evidence surveyed. There is a hint of this in the leader comment in today’s Independent. Anyway, here is the Archbishop’s Afterword to the report:

Good Childhood Enquiry

 

Afterword by Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury

 

1.

 

A few days before the final draft of this report arrived on my desk, there had been an intriguing media flurry over, of all things, a poem in the English curriculum of secondary schools.  Carol Ann Duffy’s poem about a frustrated, angry and confused teenager leaving the house with a knife in his or her pocket had been the subject of a small number of complaints on the grounds that it somehow colluded with or ‘normalised’ knife-carrying, at a time when knife crime involving teenagers had risen to a very disturbing level.  One education authority had duly banned the poem, and predictable controversy followed.

 

The debate was intriguing because it seemed to trade on two of the most powerful and least helpful elements in our thinking about children and young people in this society. On the one hand, the child is appallingly vulnerable, mentally as well as physically; the chief need of a child is protection from what will assault and corrupt.  On the other hand, the child is potentially menacing; the condition of many or most of our young people at the moment is almost feral, and society needs to be protected from them.  Clear messages must be sent about what society will and will not tolerate.

 

To be concerned about protecting children is entirely right.  The last decade has alerted all of us to some of the ways in which we have betrayed children by not securing them against assault and abuse in various contexts, and no-one can be complacent in this area.  Likewise, it is right to feel with some urgency that a youth subculture in which extreme reactive violence is normal is a terrible thing and needs to be confronted.  But dealing responsibly with these anxieties needs some reality checking and some scrutiny of the mythology of panic.  Perhaps above all, it needs some careful listening to how children and young people themselves experience and think about who they are and where they are.  It needs to assume that our young people are – no less than adults – capable of being intelligent.

 

The Good Childhood Inquiry has attempted to work on this assumption, and it has painted a detailed and compelling picture of the intelligence of the young people who have contributed to it.  It resolutely refuses to give an apocalyptic analysis of a generation out of control; but what it does is to turn a sharp eye on the society in which children are being raised and ask just how it has become so tone-deaf to the real requirements of children.  It challenges us about why words like love, happiness and stability have come to sound either bizarre or dull to so many adults, when in fact they are the necessary iron rations for maturity, sense, empathy and everything else needed for a balanced human existence alongside others.

 

There has been some understandable mockery of the idea that there should be classes in ‘happiness’; but we might well wonder why it is that the suggestion was ever made – why it had come to seem that the concept wasn’t obvious.  And without a coherent sense of what makes for long term human well-being, the educating of a new generation is hamstrung from the start.  The report doesn’t quite say that we are without such a coherent sense, but it notes a whole range of things which strongly suggest that there is a huge amount of ground to make up.  In particular, our attention is drawn to the effect of obsessive testing in the educational process and how it works for the interests of some parents and some schools, but not in the interests of the children; to the equally obsessive drive to co-opt children into the market place by intensive advertising; to our casual attitude in the UK towards preparing young people in their mid-teens for a working environment by solid investment in post-school training.  These are social habits that might have been deliberately designed to minimise confidence and a steady sense of well-being.  But behind these and other specifics, there lie deeper troubles.  We tolerate levels of arbitrary violence in our entertainment that have a debasing effect on everyone’s imagination.  We shy away from confronting the cost that may be involved in preserving stability in our relationships.  Despite serious efforts to change the situation, we remain a gravely unequal society, with less social mobility than comparable countries, and the effects of poverty still fall disproportionately on the young.  We are deeply in thrall to individualism, says the report, and this hampers our capacity really to put ourselves at the service of the growth and safety of the new generation. 

 

In short, this report is telling us that adults have to change if children are to be better cared for and their welfare better secured.  But there are no simple scapegoats here, as if targeting one particular group for blame would help us move on.  A good example is what is said here about working parents.  It may be tempting to say that the root of many problems lies in the fact that too many mothers of small children are in regular employment and to suggest that the solution lies in a return to what is fondly imagined to be the traditional domestic pattern.  But while there are undoubtedly some negative effects for children over two years old being in group childcare, the two salient issues identified are, first, what we take for granted about work itself – both in terms of our attitudes to our own careers and in terms of what working patterns are encouraged by employers – and second, what kind of supplementary care is available when parents are working.  Group childcare is not the only option: families, networks of friends or neighbours, informal associations, actually take up a good deal of the requirement here (as in fact they have done in more ‘traditional’ cultural contexts), and fewer negative results are visible.

 

2.

 

But what this does is to focus our attention on the context in which child-rearing is happening.  If we live in an environment where employers are habitually insensitive to family issues and needs, or in an environment where parents have not had the chance to build up networks of support, then the family with two working parents will be running some risks.  If we do not want to run those risks, a good many things will have to change in attitudes and policies.

 

There are two striking aspects of the responses of many of the young people interviewed for this project which sharpen up this diagnosis further.  The majority of these young people are passionately committed to the importance of friendship and keenly aware of the impact on their lives of family breakup (not least of the absence of a father).  These concerns are in fact connected: children recognise that they need time and opportunity to work at their own relationships; and they suffer when adult relationships around them fail.  The implication is that adults too need the time and freedom to work at sustaining relationships; but the climate we live in is not particularly friendly to this.

 

There is certainly no quick solution when we are speaking about a large scale cultural phenomenon: laws cannot make marriages work.  But what they can do is to give all reasonable support to men and women who want to be responsibly and generously there for their children, and who need to be helped to resist the sort of pressures that destroy relationships through overwork and economic hardship.  Beyond this, we are in the territory of changing hearts.  We need to develop a culture in which people are not only interested in their right to have a child but in how they guarantee the conditions in which a child can be brought up in security and emotional confidence.  The report rightly stresses how essential it is that couples understand that their commitment to each other is absolutely bound up with the welfare of their children; so that working to secure that commitment is part of what is owed to those children.  If we are serious about children’s welfare, we need not only access to the right kind of training in parenting skills but a serious shared willingness as a society to educate young people about committed partnership, its importance and its challenges.  In plain terms, it will not serve us as a society, and it will not serve the growing generation, if we simply regard marriage as just one option in the marketplace of lifestyles.  When this report argues for better and earlier sex education for our young people, it is not talking about an expanded curriculum of biological or even sociological instruction, or about the premature exposure of children to all the complexities of sexual practice.  It is very specifically advocating a style of sex education that focuses on emotional maturity and self-awareness – with all that this means in terms of seeing this area of our lives in the context of adult and faithful responsibility.

 

3.

 

So many aspects of this report bring us back to the same basic question.  How can we raise confident, happy and creative human beings if we do not have some shared ideas about what human maturity and happiness look like?  More sharply, how can we do this if we have no notion of what it is to ‘educate our emotions’?  The phrase is likely to be a rather unfamiliar one, sounding presumptuous or utopian or just authoritarian and bossy.  But the truth is that when human beings act out their individual feelings without reflection and scrutiny, they are likely very soon to become incapable of living with each other; there is enough ‘reality television’ these days to provide dismally abundant evidence of this.  And, that being said, it is interesting that another strand of reality TV has pointed up the issue from a different angle.  ‘The Monastery’ initiated a succession of programmes in which an assortment of individuals spends time in an environment where a fixed rhythm of life combines with a critical scrutiny of passing feelings.  It was made very clear both how very hard we are likely to find it to see ourselves and our emotions from a bit of a distance, and how transforming and expanding it can be when we learn to do so.  ‘Educating’ emotion is to do with this sort of patient realism about ourselves, with its corollary of empathy with others and patience with them as well.

 

Recent studies of childhood have underlined how the lack of dependable and loving parenting in the first years, even months, of life results in an emotional narrowing, an empathy deficit, which is very hard to overcome.  It has been shown – by researchers like Sue Gerhardt – that this involves a physiological dysfunction, where certain neural channels are never opened.  The failure to engage with the independent psychological reality that is the child’s consciousness because of a fixation on one’s own needs replicates in the child the same incapacity to wait and to empathise, often with specially disastrous results in adolescence and early adulthood.  The truth is that learning to see clearly one’s own emotions and creating that element of distance from them is to create some space for the reality of a human other.  Everyone except the most severely mentally disturbed learns a measure of this for their survival; the mature adult is the one who has made it an unobtrusive habit – and who, because of that, has some freedom to engage with and take responsibility for others. 

 

Which is why, recalling the debate mentioned at the start of these reflections, tackling a poem with an emotionally challenging content in an environment where responsible adults are around to ‘contain’ some of the fallout is the opposite of irresponsible collusion with violence.  When children are routinely exposed in the media to violence of word and action, without any mediation or analysis, it is bizarre that the literary representation of circumstances that could lead to violence should be so shocking to some.  Leading a child to think through the feelings of another is not to assault the child’s innocence or to normalise those feelings; it is to recognise (to stress the point once again) the intelligence of the child and to try and enlarge it so that he or she understands both their own feelings and those of others better – so that, perhaps, the child comes to see something of where the line is, in responsible human life, between experiencing passionate emotion and acting on it without thought.  To deny the possibility of nourishing that sort of intelligence is to risk yet more uneducated emotion and reactive behaviour.

 

4.

 

This report is not ashamed to put love at the centre of the child’s needs – and the adult’s too: love not as warm feeling alone, but as long-term commitment to someone else’s well-being as something that matters profoundly to one’s own well-being.  That sort of commitment means relativising your own sense of what you as an individual need so as to discover what might be good for you and the other; and parenthood is one of the contexts where most people learn this most lastingly if they learn it at all.  It does not guarantee happiness – the world is unpredictable and often cruel – but happiness has no chance without it, and when the cruel and unpredictable occurs, there will be more resources to meet it if love has been experienced.  

 

The report is not a document of theology or even ethics; but it does force the reader to ask what we have in the ‘bank’ of mind and spirit in our culture that reinforces love and fidelity and offers some robust account of what long term human welfare looks like and what it demands.  The concern of all major religious communities with children and the family, and their heavy investment (not without controversy these days) in education, is sometimes taken to be essentially about indoctrination of children and control of sexuality (especially women’s sexuality).  The moral confusions and corruptions to which religious institutions, like others, are vulnerable have meant that these motivations have been very visible.  But, to mention only the case of the Christian churches, there are deeper motivations, whose substance is relevant to plenty of people who may not share the doctrinal convictions of believers.  Although this is an independent enquiry, it has been sponsored by the Children’s Society with its roots firmly in the Church’s life and vision.  To the extent that it has worked out of these ‘deeper motivations’, it has shown clearly that they are acutely relevant to a wider public.  Of those motivations, two are particularly important, and it is worth spelling out a little why this is so.

 

First, the basic texts of Christian faith contain some startling statements about children (even more startling two thousand years ago than now): the child is the one from whom the adult must learn about ‘the Kingdom of God’; and the one who abuses or corrupts or deceives the child is destined for the harshest of judgements.  The child not only has access to the Kingdom, s/he has a privileged place in it.  This is not romantic speculation about children trailing clouds of glory, or even a celebration of childlike innocence.  In its context, it seems to mean that it is the very powerlessness or vulnerability of the child that is important – important in securing their place of privilege, but also important as reminding the adult that receiving the news of the possibility of change, freedom, love, reconciliation, requires of the adult a degree of vulnerability and spontaneity that is normally overlaid by suspicion and self-defensiveness.  And what is most damnable in human relationships is whatever pushes this to the margins or destroys it.

 

Second, there has been since the beginning of Christianity a conviction that faithful human relationship in marriage is a reflection of the faithfulness with which God relates to the universe and more specifically the faithfulness with which Jesus Christ relates to believers.  In other words, the stable family unit when it is fully what it can be makes a statement about ‘how things are’ – about what cannot be shaken in a world where everything seems to be mobile and uncertain.  It is true that the family can be a context of distraction from the truth, of limiting and unintelligent loyalty that blocks out the wider world – Jesus himself is brutally clear about this; but this does not alter what the family can be when it is animated by a love willing to grow beyond its own boundaries, a love confident enough not to be seeking for a retreat from a difficult larger world.

 

Two insights from the foundational texts of one religious faith which help explain why these issues matter to religious believers; other themes and motivations will no doubt be found in other faiths.  But in our present context they highlight issues that are of the most urgent contemporary significance.  The child is – amongst so much else – a sign of what is promised when we drop some of our obsession with defence and control; not in the name of some idealisation of unthinking action but in the name of a willingness to be taught, to be nourished and to be surprised.  And the committed family relationship is a sign, a statement of trust that there is something that cannot be invalidated or destroyed by any of the chances of the world, something which our experience of committed love gives us a glimpse of.

 

I said earlier that there are no quick solutions any more than there are any scapegoats in responding to the varied and sometimes troubling picture this report sketches for us.  But if we are to respond intelligently to the intelligent observations of the young people whose experience has been at the heart of this work, we shall need to be aware of the resources we have for changing both policies and attitudes.  This manifestly includes our heritage of religious belief.  But to say this is also in the same moment to put the challenge to religious communities of all kinds as to their willingness to give the care and nurture of children the priority it deserves.  There is more involved than simply defending the role of faith in education – and unless ‘faith schools’ show a keener than average awareness of some of the issues discussed above, they will be failing in a central aspect of their duty.  There is more involved than the defence of traditional family patterns – unless believers can show all of us ways of handling the education of emotion and of preparing people for adult commitment in relationships, all that will be seen is an agenda of anxiety, censoriousness and repression.  There is more involved than a generally welcoming attitude to the young – on its own, this can be felt as a patronising attempt to hold on to unenthusiastic members.

 

The report asks for more from churches and religious communities – as it does from all kinds of bodies in our society.  It asks for a coherent vision of how human beings grow and become capable of giving and deserving trust, for unremitting advocacy on behalf of those who are growing up in poverty, for a systematic willingness to pay attention to how children and young people actually talk about themselves, and perhaps above all for a realistic and grateful appreciation of who and what our young people really are.  In a climate where the mixture of sentimentalism and panic makes discussion of children’s issues so difficult, this report will bring a thoughtful and hopeful perspective.  For the sake of the rising generation and their successors, I hope it will be welcomed and acted upon.       

 

© Rowan Williams 2009