Thursday, November 30, 2006

Exploring Denial

One of our Government’s favourite activities is to discover things that have been known for years and then a) turn the received wisdom on its head for no good reason and b) try to sell it to us as something new and exciting. The flurry to reinvent ‘childhood’ is a case in point. Doesn’t anybody in Whitehall watch What the Victorians did for us? Childhood, like the teddy bear, is about a century old. Our misty hope for it has remained largely unchanged since pudding-headed cherubs in matching sailor suits had doily-covered clothes pegs thrust upon them by kindly nannies. Childhood should be idyllic.

The frenzied quest continues and requires an ever-expanding industry of practitioners, advisors and commentators to keep it trundling along. There is even an inquiry into what makes a good childhood currently undergoing ‘consultation’. Researchers have, quite rightly, asked some 11,000 children what they think should be the essential components of a ‘good childhood’. Unsurprisingly, they wanted safe, stable family lives and the freedom to express themselves. The real problem is that it falls to adults to provide this, so, unless we grownups start pulling our socks up, children will not get the childhood they want and deserve.

Just how bad are we then? We may have come a ways since the days when we sent tots up chimneys and down coal pits but, as well off countries go, we are still appalling. The Children’s Society who are leading on the Good Childhood Inquiry say,

‘According to important new comparative research on children’s well-being in the European Union, the UK is faring exceptionally badly in the well-being of its children. In comparison with 25 European states, using more than 50 different indicators, the UK ranked in 21st place, above The Slovak Republic, Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania.’

Brilliant. We just scraped in higher than four ex-soviet countries where state sanctioned hardship has been enshrined for three generations. The report goes on to note that national wealth has not brought us greater happiness. This has been getting noticed a lot lately,

‘While average incomes in the United Kingdom have doubled in the last 50 years, people are no happier today, on average, than people were fifty years ago. In fact, for young people in particular, there is evidence to suggest that the opposite is true: that improved economic conditions seem to be associated with increasing levels of emotional problems. Depression and anxiety have increased for both boys and girls aged 15-16 since the mid-1980s, as have what re called ‘non-aggressive conduct problems’ such as lying, stealing and disobedience.’

Oh dear. Far from idyllic. Pity some of our practitioners, advisors and researchers hadn’t done a little book learning themselves otherwise they might have understood what ethicists and economists with consciences have been saying for years – that just seeing a rise in gross domestic product doesn’t make anyone except the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord Sainsbury and Richard Branson happy. Progressive economists say that there are many contributors to GDP, pollution being a prime example, which have a negative impact on well-being and, unless those negative effects of productivity are factored into the equation, GDP can’t be used as an accurate measure of a society’s prosperity.

There is another, more accurate measure of well-being that progressives like Friends of the Earth and the New Economics Foundation recommend should be used called the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI). This measure factors in all the aspects of productivity that have a negative impact like bad air quality, reliability of transport, rubbish in the street etc.

There has been a tendency in Government and local authorities to think that the public is just ignorant and ungrateful because they are looking at figures which suggest that we never had it so good and we are standing waiting for trains that don’t come and cleaning up after the bin men every week. The average child has a high dependency on local services – usually far higher than their parents. The fact that they might, in the course of a day, come into contact with a great number of adults having a shitty day does impact hugely on their quality of life.

According to the Children’s Society research, only 17 per cent of young people think ‘my area cares about its young people.’ That is incredibly low and indicates a positive gauntlet of bad temper that kids have to negotiate in everyday life. And they don’t get much of a choice about how that pans out. If they retaliate, against anyone, it is likely to land them in trouble.

The report concludes,

‘Two-thirds (66%) of young people felt that their life had a sense of purpose. Previous research has shown that having a sense of purpose is linked with well-being.’

Well build me a pyramid and call me pharaoh - I think they may have just discovered Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs…


Picture from www.genieangel.com

4 comments:

Ms Melancholy said...

‘While average incomes in the United Kingdom have doubled in the last 50 years, people are no happier today, on average, than people were fifty years ago. In fact, for young people in particular, there is evidence to suggest that the opposite is true: that improved economic conditions seem to be associated with increasing levels of emotional problems. Depression and anxiety have increased for both boys and girls aged 15-16 since the mid-1980s, as have what re called ‘non-aggressive conduct problems’ such as lying, stealing and disobedience.’

These figures are so revealing, if only we are willing to see it: the psychological health of our young people reflects back to us our own inadequacies as a society. A Martian landing in our culture would be forgiven for believing that we see consumption as our path to happiness. Young people, those most avid of consumers, tell us that this is just not true if only we would be willing to read the writing on the page.

I love your analysis, but could I add a bit more? Children require relationship above all else. As our wealth as a nation increases we spend more and more time consuming (goods and services) and less and less time in actual relationship with each other, including our children. Children do require ‘safe, stable family lives and the freedom to express themselves’, but more than that they require a relationship with at least one parent which meets at least some of their relational needs at least some of the time. Adults seem to forget this in their desperation to improve the material condition of their children’s lives. And as children appear to get more and more unhappy – and act out their unhappiness - the grown-up world responds with a rash of information on boundaries, discipline and ‘the naughty step’. Sentimental as it might sound, what we really need to do is enjoy our children and let them know it. But perhaps we are all too unhappy for that?

Love the blog, by the way.

That's so pants said...

Couldn't agree more Ms Melancholy and we are in good company. Ethecists Peter Singer and Anthony Grayling (among others) have been saying this for years. I have been impressed by economist Clive Hamilton's painstaking analysis on the relationship between government led consumerism and personal dissatisfaction. You're right, kids instinctively know that these values are wrong but they are wired to trust what adults tell them. We need to clean up our act.

Steve_East9 said...

ms melancholy tells what I believe to be a golden truth. I grew up as one of eight siblings with a kind and caring mother and father who both had to work long hours to support us. My Mother, still going at nearly 85, even more. She had an evening job too, so actually worked from 8am to after 10pm every single day until her late 60s. Goodness knows what my childhood would have been like if I had not had four wonderful older sisters who acted as surrogate mothers to me and gave me the attention and time my parents couldn't (but which I still craved even so).

In later life I spent time in Spain and Italy but it wasn't until the early 90s, just before going to Uni as a mature student, when I spent three months in Andalucia that it hit me how badly we nurture our children in the UK. I made dozens of friends in the beautiful town of Cadiz and, as it was summer, spent much time on its divine beaches. I was gob-smacked at the loving, caring freedom they gave to their off-spring; how they enjoyed them and nurtured them. I was aware of how odd it made me feel not to see and hear the 'pettiness' of British parenting.

Every so often, as I'm sure we have all experienced, someone appears - a friend of a friend, a work colleague, a neighbour maybe (though not much here in Homerton E9 sadly) who exudes warmth, togetherness, well-adjustedness. Call it what you will but they are signs that they were loved and embraced as a child, and nurtured in a way that is, frankly, often alien to many people.

In the last two years I have finally felt able to interact with my nieces and nephews - well, 'great' nieces and nephews all under three years old, in a way I probably haven't before, with the previous 20 odd anyway! And discovered that in spite of their enormous demands, shocking energy levels and all-round obliviousness to mess, material destruction or the shortcomings of the adults around them, that I might be totally worn out but never, ever 'stressed'. In fact, they are great stress relievers, never less than stimulating to be with and frankly I often prefer being with them to any of my adult family!

Fortunately their parents - my nieces and nephews - take no heed of the occasional remarks from other relatives, that they 'spend too much time with them', 'give them too much attention - it won't be good for them when they're older!' or some such throwback comments from our own very different circumstances.

Alas, it will take a very big cultural change here to achieve the kind of parenting, on a big scale, that is needed. But all power to those that do it right.

That's so pants said...

I also lived in Spain for a couple of years and what I noticed about parenting is that it is mostly CALM. Where buttoned-up parenting has been rejected here it has sometimes been replaced by frantic over-involvement. I see a lot of that and I feel really sorry for kids whose parents can't go five minutes without knowing where they are. When my 9 year old niece came over from Australia this summer, her mother was quite happy to let her go out and play with the local kids up until dark - no mobile, no monitoring (although we could often see them running around in the park from the kitchen window). My niece is sensible and so are the local kids. I know people who wouldn't dream of letting their child out of their sight at that age.