What makes a happy childhood ?

Posted on October 7, 2014 by

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Our children’s blighted lives

 Taken from ‘The Sunday Times’, Feb 1st 2009

http://women.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/women/families/article5626687.ece

The biggest investigation into childhood paints a startling picture of lives blighted by violence, drugs and broken homes.

Daisy Goodwin looks at her own loving family and finds even she could do better

Forget the economic crisis for the moment, we British have something much more fundamental to worry about: why have we become such lousy parents? We read of Baby P, of record rates of teenage pregnancy, of children expelled from nursery school for biting, of MySpace parties, teenage stabbings and six stone toddlers and feel – admit it – both sad and morally superior: after all, our children don’t have Asbos, cirrhosis of the liver, drug habits or carry knives.

But ask yourself this: do you ever fight with your other half in front of the children? Do you leave them to their own devices when they are on the computer? Have you ever sat them in front of the television instead of taking them out for a walk? Do you fret about school league tables? Do both of you work? Do you graze from the fridge instead of sitting down to a proper meal? Have you ever shouted at your children for no reason or yielded when you should have been firm? You would, of course, lay down your life for your darling offspring, but do you sometimes give them stuff, instead of love? If the answer to any of these questions is a whispered yes, then you are not alone. I have done all these things, even though I think of myself as a good enough mother.

But according to A Good Childhood – a report commissioned by the Children’s Society and produced by the independent Good Childhood Inquiry, which undertook the biggest investigation into childhood conducted in the UK – these kinds of parental shortcomings are the hallmarks of British parenting. In an attempt to assess how we could do it better, a group of experts, including Richard Layard, emeritus professor of economics at the London School of Economics who heads its investigations into wellbeing, have spent two years sifting through reports and contributions from some 35,000 people. They have tried to understand why British kids fare the worst of all the children in the 21 developed nations. That’s worse than Germany, Scandinavia, Finland and even France.

How so? Britain – and, it must be conceded, the United States – has more broken families than anywhere else in the West. We are less likely to sit down as a family to eat a meal than any of our European neighbours. British children get into more fights with each other, drink more alcohol, take more drugs, have more sex and produce more babies than any of their European counterparts (and no sniggering at the back please: this is so not rock’n’roll).

They are also fatter (if not quite as fat as the Americans) and they are less inclined to stay in education past the age of 16 – no wonder, since ours are almost the most tested schoolchildren in the world. Even worse, more children live in relative poverty here than they do in the rest of Europe, which might be excusable if they lived in a land of opportunity, but it seems that we are less socially mobile than our continental neighbours, too.

There are some bright spots: our children are not going to die of scarlet fever, or be sent up chimneys, or grow up thinking black men can’t be presidents, but those improvements on the past are true throughout the developed world. What is so shaming about the statistics and statements in A Good Childhood is that both individually and as a society we are the West’s worst parents.

Post Thatcherite era

This is a relatively recent phenomenon: the numbers of 15-and 16-year-olds with emotional difficulties rose steadily from 1974 to a peak in 1999 and has stayed there ever since. In other words, since Margaret Thatcher became education minister our children have become progressively more miserable. Mrs T famously said there was no such thing as society, “we have to look after ourselves first and then look after our neighbours”, and the Good Childhood report puts our children’s problems down to “excessive individualism” – “which holds that our main duty is to make the most of ourselves. Too often this means being as successful as possible in what becomes a struggle of each against all”.

One of the report’s chilling statistics is that we trust each other less than we used to. In 1959 when people were asked, “would you say that most people can be trusted – or would you say that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people?” more than half said yes, most people could be trusted. By 1999 that figure had halved. We have lost faith in each other.

The report suggests this loss of faith stems from the breakdown of the family. It identifies two big changes: the rise in the number of women working – some 70% of mothers of nine to 12-month-old babies now do paid work, whereas 25 years ago it was only 25%; and parental break-up – one third of our 16-year-olds live apart from their biological father.

Now, none of this is exactly a revelation but what’s striking is the force of the report’s emphasis: not enough children are growing up in homes with two parents who spend enough time with them. We are raising a generation of children who are left in efficient but soulless nurseries as babies during the day and looked after by a tired, depressed single mother at night.

So these children don’t just need money (although poverty is undoubtedly a factor) they need bottomless reserves of unconditional love. As a working mother myself, I don’t want to believe that my children are suffering because I work, but there has to be a reason why my eight-year-old climbs into my bed every night – could it be that she wants some uninterrupted, BlackBerry-less time with me? Still, as a child of divorced parents, I feel pretty proud of myself for staying married – I may go out to work, but at least my children can talk about mum and dad in the same sentence. I was lucky in that my parents managed their separation pretty amicably, but every broken relationship makes life harder for the children – no wonder they grow up thinking people can’t be trusted when the two most important people in their life can’t honour their commitment to stay together.

Children of divorced parents are statistically more likely to get divorced themselves. I certainly never thought I would stay married for as long as I have. Luckily my husband was brought up by parents whose long and loving marriage gave him the right kind of template. But staying married is only the beginning: to raise happy children you have to respect them and each other. One of the most revealing lines in the report is: “If parents gave more priority to maintaining their feelings towards each other, this would do more for their children than much of the rest of what they do for their children.”

So there is little point in sending your kids to Kumon maths and giving them fish oil supplements if every night you and your spouse have blazing rows in front of them. If you can’t provide them with a template of two parents who actually like each other then the rest is pretty meaningless.

It is time to bring back the idea of “not in front of the children”, keeping the rage and resentment that we all sometimes feel behind closed, soundproofed doors. I have been married for more than 20 years, but the last time I had a row with my husband (about money, naturally), my younger daughter burst into tears and said: “Are you getting divorced?” My husband and I were simply letting off steam, but for her it was war. Since then we’ve been doing a lot of quiet hissing (not so cathartic for us, but at least the children are happy).

The report is also clear about our collective need for better parenting – warm and loving but also firm. In my case it means taking my daughter upstairs to bed and making sure she goes to sleep instead of pouring myself another glass of wine and saying: “Well, Silent Witness is really quite educational television – she might grow up to be a forensic pathologist, even if she can’t stay awake at school tomorrow.”

It is not just individual parents who are singled out as wanting – A Good Childhood is pretty scathing about the kind of care that children can expect from the state. In Britain, children’s homes are the last resort, their unhappy inmates faring significantly worse at school than children in families. In Germany a child in care will have the same case worker for 10 years; if we did the same here the outcomes for our children in care would be radically different. All children need one person they can rely on.

Crucially, the report is more than just a lament for the world of happy families we have lost. It contains a number of practical ideas to make childhood special. It suggests, for example, that all would-be parents be given free classes that prepare them for the physical and emotional strains, as well as the joys, of bringing a new life into the world: “Fathers as well as mothers should be encouraged to take courses in ‘understanding your child’ and be prepared for the strain of sleepless nights, inconsolable crying and financial pressure.”

Even more important, these lessons should be taught in schools, before conception (or so we must all hope). Anyone who watched the BBC series The Baby Borrowers, where teenagers were given real babies to look after, will know how prophylactic that kind of experience can be. Any teenager who thinks pregnancy is the easy option should be asked to care for a newborn for a couple of days and nights – it would make them feel quite differently about unprotected sex. A few generations ago many more children would have grown up with younger siblings, so they would have had a much more realistic idea of what childcare really involves. Now, teaching this at school may be the only substitute.

Another suggestion is that each child should have a civil birth ceremony. I think this charming idea should go even further and include a secular version of godparents. The more people a child has watching out for it the better – an emotional insurance policy. I grew up with divorced parents and it was my godmother and my aunt to whom I turned when I needed to make sense of my parents’ often inexplicable behaviour. Every child should have an impartial older friend on speed dial (given that 90% of 11-year-olds now have mobile phones).

The report is full of other sensible recommendations – such as banning advertising targeted at the under12s – but its real message is: there is a problem with our kids, it affects all of us and it won’t go away until we all start viewing parenthood as a responsibility rather than a right. Raising a child is the most important thing most of us will do and the hardest; it’s not just about getting up at three in the morning because there is a monster under the bed or reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar for the 75th time, it’s about teaching your children to cross the road properly and then letting them walk to school on their own.

It’s also about not shouting at your husband when he comes home late or screaming at your wife for holding the map upside down; it may even be about not leaving a lacklustre marriage but trying to make it work. It may even be about putting your children’s happiness first instead of your own. Nothing in this report should really surprise us. Of course children need parents who love them – and each other. What makes this all so vital is that the report doesn’t blame nebulous social forces. It puts the debate right into the home: how can we raise happy kids unless we learn to behave like adults?

Father figures

Fathers are no less important than mothers in a child’s life. The closeness of fathers to their children influences the children’s wellbeing, even after allowing for the mothers’ influence. If fathers are more closely involved, children develop better friendships, more empathy and higher self-esteem, are more satisfied with life and achieve more educationally.

If children are in conflict with their fathers or find them harsh or neglectful, they are much more likely to become destructive and aggressive. Adolescents whose fathers are antisocial or who abuse alcohol or drugs are more likely to develop behavioural difficulties.

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First pub’d in ‘The Sunday Times’, Feb 1st 2009.

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