Friday, April 13, 2007

Children: "An investment of very doubtful value."

This blog title is a quote from last night's Analysis: Miserable Children on Radio 4, which seems to be the Establishment's response to the UNICEF report: Child Poverty in Perspective: An Overview of Child Well-being in Rich Countries about which I blogged in February.

The programme was presented by Andrew Brown, and included contributions from 'the renowned child care expert Penelope Leach, Professor Richard Layard, politically influential advocate of the "science of happiness", the Swedish Children's Ombudsman Lena Nyberg and the minister with responsibility for children in Britain, Beverley Hughes,' and its precis reads as follows:
"A recent UNICEF report prompted accusations that the UK is failing its children. So are we breeding a uniquely unhappy youngest generation? Or are we allowing adult angst and an idealised image of childhood to distort our view? In this week's 'Analysis', Andrew Brown investigates how factors such as a more commercially driven and status-conscious society, prolonged adolescence, and parental uncertainty about how best to bring up children are challenging assumptions about ever more contented children."

It was the opening five minutes of the programme that made me think: "Oh, this is the establishment's answer to that report," because it began with Leach and Willets both saying, in round about ways, that happiness doesn't really matter much anyway, followed by Beverley Hughes pricelessly critising the report as being outdated ("The children in question didn't grow up under Labour." !) and using questionable methodology.

The presenter then showed his bias, in my opinion, by repeating her suggestion: (" matter what may be the validity of the criticisms levelled at its methods.") and then redeemed himself with the words: "Even poverty does not seem to make children miserable on its own," and "But perhaps it is higher expectations which are themselves the problem."

Penelope Leach then said something with which I fundamentally disagree: "I think to be a poor child in a society as aspirant as ours and as materialistic as ours is very, very difficult. Children are herd animals - they want to do what other children do, they want to have what other children have - and therefore to be much poorer than the average probably does make you bloody miserable." Children are NOT herd animals! Yes, they like to play with other children some of the time - but the mistake we make is in forcibly herding them together ALL of the time, and giving them no choice in the matter. Then, yes, comparisions between richer and poorer are more likely and have more chance to do damage. But only because we forced them to herd together in the first place.

Economist Richard Layard spoke in defence of the integrity of the survey, thank goodness, and suggested that the problem in the UK is our level of trust in one another. He suggested that "we need to move towards a society in which people think their job is to contribute to the welfare of other people," - which may well be true, but he offered no suggestions as to how to bring this about. The insanely paradoxical idea of enforced volunteering perhaps? I can't see this furthering trust between people, even if someone is mad enough to make it happen.

Julia Margo for the IPPR, then came in and blamed people's - especially 'vulnerable' children's lack of contentment on advertising and corporate brands: "Children react to messages from advertisers about kinds of products and lifestyles associated with a high status in society much more than adults do. They’re much more susceptible to these kinds of messages and ideas and they’re much more prone to anxiety about their status," and again I would argue that this is because they're forced out of the mixed-age family environment with (hopefully) its unconditional acceptance of their unadorned status. This also removes the child from daily familiarity with the family routine - possibly including the financial calculations which would make the child more realistically aware about the real cost of things, the funds available, and what could and couldn't be afforded.

She went on to say: "What’s quite worrying actually is that the most recent research suggests that British children are more brand aware than their US counterparts even, which gives some indication of our kind of children’s brand awareness. It’s a very serious problem here," which made me think of Gatto and his explanation of British schooling being directly founded and financed by industrialists. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose..

Swedish Children's Ombudsman Lena Nyberg actually cited schools and stress as being a primary factor, and mentioned that even in Sweden there is a huge problem with mental illness. Lord Layard then came back with a direct recommendation (apparently serious,) that the whole problem could be solved by dispensing more happy pills! [Note to self: check Layard's declared business interests.] He went further by making it clear that he wasn't just referring to mental illness per se, but the full range of anxiety disorders which may, he said, be massively underdiagnosed. This made me laugh when I heard it, but then I realised it's not funny: it's spooky, if not terrifying.

The conversation then sidetracked into the invention of adolescence which is surely a factor, but one shared, presumably, by all the other countries featured in the report, but Julia Margo said that she has in her research discovered that British
children have less adult guidance than children elsewhere in Europe. This I can believe, and agree is relevant. This got confused with talk about adult authority, which I think is not relevant, and then the subject of parental age came up for debate.

Penelope Leach very tentatively, and somewhat garbledly, suggested that it might be better for parenting to begin at a much earlier age, but she then immediately contradicted this by saying: "Though I would be the first to be bursting into tears if young people that I knew were saying well we’re going to have our family now at 18, 19, 20 because it wouldn’t work." Why not? She didn't say, but she's referring to the economical factors I think. She seemed to be battling with herself on the issue, and I think it is a general dichotomy of our modern world (which in my view would be solved by less family separation and therefore more support from the other generations.)

Julia Margo came back with the contrary point, which she claimed to have gleaned from the UNICEF research, that high teenage fertility was an indicator of unhappy children. This is an interesting point to me, because I myself was an unhappy adolescent and had a strong urge to have children from about the age of fifteen. I think this is because we instinctively know that the family environment is the healthiest, and we therefore seek to create our own family if our current environment is not good for us.

The presenter then introduced a political angle, by asking David Willets whether he was in favour of government intervention into this problem ("No government can avoid stepping in when children’s unhappiness has consequences for all of society,") even though the Conservatives traditionally avoided intervention.

David Willets said: "I think that if we could all just allow, create a little bit more space in which children are allowed to be children and then know there are boundaries for their behaviour and boundaries that can be set by adults who don’t necessarily all have to be in some sort of professional position," which seemed like an accurate description of home education, to me!

And then Beverley Hughes uttered another one of her golden, priceless, coffee-spluttering statements: "I’m absolutely clear and so is the government that it is parents who bring up children and there’s no way we would want to transgress in terms of that responsibility or infantilise parents," which I'm in the process of printing, framing and mounting on my wall ;-)

The topic returned to the necessary time spent with parents, involvement of other generations, a useful point by Penelope Leach: "I don’t think we can make rules for bringing up children because I don’t think we know what we want children to be like," and a spot of single-mother bashing by the Swede, although she did go on to say that too much non-school activity was also unhelpful, with which I did concur.

The debate drew to a close with Brown questioning why people have children at all, including the above quoted phrase: "an investment of very doubtful value," which Layard developed into the interesting idea that fewer children makes for more parental attention and more pressure for each child to succeed in order for their parents to justify the child's existence!

Brown then took this further: "Yet the more important success becomes, the less likely it is that all children can hope for happiness, since the unsuccessful must always be a majority and so increasingly miserable." Which is possibly true BUT it depends entirely on your definition of success.

Penelope Leach ended with a well-aimed criticism of government: "They know we have a lot of families who are much poorer than they should be and that this in a sense predicts disaster later and they seem to have decided that you can kind of legislate and arrange for change," well-aimed because of course legislation of this kind is pointless at best and very harmful at worst.

And the programme finished on a far more balanced note, in my opinion, than it had begun, with the presenter's words: "But [a change] in which status is measured only by material success makes us, and our children, needlessly miserable."

On this point, I fully agree.


Blogger Allie said...

That was all very interesting.

I think that the whole 'brand pressure' and associated unhappiness is an indication of lack of time spent actually being happy. This is not just true for children or teens but for people in general. We are spun a line about more stuff making us happier. The level of personal debt in this country sould seem to indicate that lots of people are trying to consume their way out of unhappiness.

Mind you, I think that it is ridiculous that such a rich country throws people into financial crisis - which can make kids very unhappy - for the sake of a few quid a week.

1:58 pm, April 13, 2007  
Blogger Gill said...

Yes the debt problem is a key point which I don't think was mentioned on the programme.

Ali was making some interesting remarks about debt the other day. I must blog those too, if he'll let me.

2:24 pm, April 13, 2007  
Blogger 'EF' said...

Thankyou for this transcript Gill, I didn't get the programme where I am...I hope you don't mind but am going to print it out so I can read it at leisure....some brilliant stuff you bring up I must say.

12:19 am, April 14, 2007  
Blogger Elaine said...

these ivory tower goons have the notion that penned up together children will develop a natural heirachy (i know mispelt) and function as one to the greater good of mankind, but, they have got it so wrong , pack animals are a community, families working together, young learning from old , etc, fill a field with pups and mayhen ensues . children are unhappy because they don't know who they are , imagine from the age of 4 they are taught that they are so irrelevant as a person in their own right that every day their teacher needs to call their name from a book and have them tell her/him that they are sitting within sight

12:37 am, April 14, 2007  
Blogger Gill said...

EF you can listen to the programme online if you like, just go to the link to it in the blog post. They certainly are raising some crucial issues aren't they? TBH I'm really glad we did so badly in that report, because it's forcing this kind of debate. Govt ministers bluff and bluster about its 'questionable methodology' and it just doesn't wash. The methodology was sound and anyone who looks at it can see it was.

Elaine, wow! Beautifully put :-)

8:27 am, April 14, 2007  

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