Friday, April 13, 2007

Badly behaved children are the new gardening

Today's House Points column from Liberal Democrat News.

The earlier column in question is this one, but I am not sure this week's effort makes much sense without Matthew Huntbach's letter. Maybe I'll post it here one day.

Child care

With the Commons in recess I have a chance to give Matthew Huntbach's letter (LDN, 30 March) the attention it deserves. Matthew was objecting to my column from the week before, where I made a passing and unfavourable mention of Beverley Hughes 'national curriculum for the under fives'.

Matthew was more impressed with it. He said it was "a sensible summary of the cognitive development we should observe in a growing child". He also complained that we have "moved to a juvenile culture based on instant gratification and sensationalism" and that parents suffer from a lack of guidance.

I can’t agree with that last point. As I wrote here a couple of years ago, for television producers, badly behaved children are the new gardening. Parents are deluged with guidance. The trouble is that it is so contradictory.

But I do agree with Matthew about the infantilisation of society. It's the kind of thing I grumble about on my blog. So we are really arguing over whether government intervention is likely to make things better or worse. If you think parents lack confidence, should government fill the vacuum? Or will spreading the idea that childcare is the state’s business undermine that confidence even further?

And what will be done with all the information that this new ‘curriculum' gathers. It is easy to imagine politicians using it to announce that, under Labour, babies are discovering their toes earlier than ever. It is less easy to picture it being used to help individual children.

We know that, despite the extra resources, our schools are still depressingly bad at teaching children to read. We also know that the experience of youngsters in public care is a national disgrace. Tying up childcare workers in an endless information-gathering exercise will not help them use their skills to give extra help where it is needed.

Perhaps things are simpler with younger age groups. Perhaps I have read too many psychology papers in my day job. But I also doubt whether what constitutes normal development is such a simple matter.

If you had said 50 years ago that a small boy was "always on the go" it would have been praise. Today it is a popular definition of a psychiatric disorder that is treated with drugs.

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