Thursday, August 23, 2012

The problem with children today: The Liberal Democrats and children

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned the essay I contributed to Graham Watson's collection Liberalism - Something to Shout About in 2006 and threatened to post it here. Well here is the first part.

Last time I discussed the book with Graham there were still copies available and you could obtain one by send a cheque for £6 - payable to Graham Watson MEP - to Bagehot Publishing, The Liberty, Old Kelways, Langport, Somerset TA10 9SJ. You can find the full contents in an earlier post on this blog.

Anyway here is part 1 - I have changed the academic references of the printed version into hyperlinks wherever possible.

The problem with children today: The Liberal Democrats and children

Conventional wisdom says that children are in ever-greater danger and must therefore be hedged around with more rules and restrictions. But taking away children’s independence is creating more problems than it solves. Liberal Democrats are wrong to endorse growing state control over families and should instead increase adults’ confidence in dealing with children.


Back in the 1970s, Punch published a cartoon showing a small boy dressed in skins staring into the fire burning at the mouth of the family cave. Looking on disapprovingly, his father remarked: “In my day we made our own entertainment.”

The idea that something is amiss with modern children has a pedigree going back at least as far as Aristotle. In 1503, a visitor to Southwell Minster in Nottinghamshire complained that the choristers “rave and swear and disturb the priest celebrating our Lady’s mass, and want a good whipping,” and Geoffrey Pearson’s Hooligan: A History of Respectable Fears  provides any number of examples from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. More recently, Steve Webb and Jo Holland began their contribution to The Orange Book with the declaration that “All is not well with the nation’s children”.

I suspect that people have always believed that, and that the problems they highlight tell you more about them than they do about children. With that caveat entered, I offer my own contribution to this genre. What I shall argue is that, as far as there is a problem with children today, the fault is to be found not so much in the children as in the relations between adults and children. More than that, the conventional solutions, which Liberal Democrats subscribe to as enthusiastically as any one else, are likely to make things worse.

The problem and the conventional solutions

One topical area of concern about children is obesity, and it provides a convenient way into the debate about the travails of childhood in Britain today.

In April 2006, the Guardian reported  the publication of the National Health Survey for 2004 under the headline “Child obesity has doubled in a decade.” Researchers had weighed some 2,000 youngsters and found that 26.7 per cent of girls and 24.2 per cent of boys aged between 11 and 15 qualified as obese – nearly double the rate in 1995. Amongst younger children the picture was not much better.

These statistics were accompanied by some lurid quotations, with Colin Waine, chairman of the National Obesity Forum, talking of a “public health time bomb” in the making because children who were obese in their early teens were twice as likely to die by the age of 50. Amanda Eden from Diabetes UK said: “We will soon be seeing our children growing up losing limbs and becoming blind, as they develop the serious complications of having the condition.” Some have argued that this rhetoric was overblown and the definition of obesity too vague , but there is little doubt that our children are getting fatter.

The difficulties begin when you ask what we should do about it. The conventional wisdom holds that children are getting fatter because they eat too much, and the way to get them to lose weight is through more sport in schools. Yet both these beliefs are mistaken.

The most authoritative discussion of changing calorific intakes concludes that:
… even after adjustments for meals eaten outside the home, and for consumption of alcohol, soft drinks, and confectionery, average per capita energy intake seems to have declined by 20 per cent since 1970.
And will more sport in schools help? The Liberal Democrats certainly think so. Here is Don Foster launching a policy paper in August 2004:
We see sport as crucial to the nation’s health and well-being. With child obesity trebling in the past decade, it is time the Department of Health took a far greater role in promoting sport and active living.
Yet what research there has been suggests that children burn more energy in free play than they do in organised sport . So if we really want to do something about childhood obesity, we are going to have to encourage free play. This might sound uncontroversial, but there are many forces hostile to the idea.

Among them must be listed government ministers, to judge by Tessa Jowell’s speech to the government’s sport summit on 14 July 2003:
Here’s the truth – children don’t want to play sport on badly-drained 1950s scraps of land. They want showers, fences and floodlights. They want quality facilities.
Just how circumscribed children’s lives have become can be seen from another recent Guardian article. It tells us:
Research suggests that in 20 years the ‘home habitat’ of a typical eight-year-old – the area that a child can travel around on their own – has shrunk by nearly 90 per cent.
Things are worse than that, for the figures referred to cover changes that took place between 1971 and 1990. It is hard to believe things have got better since then: the same article mentions a Home Office survey from 2005 showing that a third of children aged between 8 and 10 never play out without an adult being present, and reported that the number of children walking to school declined from 61 per cent to 53 per cent between 1994 and 2004.

The great thief of children’s freedom has been the motor car and Liberal Democrats should support the setting up of home zones – residential areas where efforts are made to reduce the dominance of the car by measures like traffic calming, planting and very low speed limits. These sound non-controversial, but in practice traffic calming is often vociferously opposed and it can take a steady nerve for local candidates to stick to their guns in the face of it, even if my own experience is that most of the people who mention the issue on the doorstep want similar measures in their own street.

Then there is the depopulation of public space over the past 30 years. Semi-official figures like park-keepers and bus conductors have disappeared, largely out of a desire to save public money, and been replaced by technological alternatives. The result is a landscape less friendly to children – you try asking a CCTV camera for help if you have lost the bus fare home.

In our essay Cohesive Communities, David Boyle and I called for the use of community support officers and neighbourhood wardens to “reduce antisocial behaviour, co-ordinate the removal of graffiti and litter, and provide more visible uniformed community safety staff on buses and trains”. This would certainly be a step forward, but on reflection I wonder whether it would not be better to recreate the roles of these lost public servants rather than employ more of the new ones. The brief of community support officers is so narrowly focused on public order that they are always likely to come into conflict with venturesome children; besides, that order is best seen as a by-product of people going about their ordinary business rather than the result of enforcement action by the authorities. Perhaps the next Lib Dem London Mayoral candidate should campaign for a new generation of Routemaster buses and promise to employ conductors on them.

The other great factor that limits children’s freedom is our current preoccupation with the dangers they face out of the home – particularly the danger of sexual assault. Child abuse is not a new phenomenon and there is no evidence that children face greater dangers than they did years ago, yet we seem obsessed with the risk. Earlier generations of parents were content to let their children negotiate the outside world armed only with warnings about not accepting lifts or sweets from strangers, whereas today the danger seems so extreme to many that they prefer not to let their children out at all.

It is tempting to call for more child-only spaces and more vetting but the danger is that, in taking steps to meet the supposed dangers to children, the authorities will merely confirm to parents that those dangers are real and convince them of the rightness of their decision to limit their children’s freedom.

One can see such a process at work in an attempted solution like the ‘walking bus’. Under such schemes, children are walked to school in a group under the supervision of volunteer adult escorts. They can join the crocodile only at certain points, and at the end of the school day the bus drops them off at the same stops, where they are collected by their parents. The trouble with such schemes is that they give parents the message that the outside world is so dangerous that it is hard to blame them for deciding to drive their children to school instead.

It is not only children’s physical health that is put at risk by this lack of freedom and autonomy. In an article in Psychology Today, Hara Estroff Marano discussed  the situation in America, where some 40,000 schools have abolished the mid-morning break:
Kids are having a hard time even playing neighbourhood pick-up games because they’ve never done it, observes Barbara Carlson, president and cofounder of Putting Families First. “They’ve been told by their coaches where on the field to stand, told by their parents what colour socks to wear, told by the referees who’s won and what’s fair. Kids are losing leadership skills.”
She argued that this lack of independence is leading to psychological problems amongst university students as they try to live away from home for the first time.

And psychological problems are not confined to students. One of the fastest growing mental diagnoses in the Western world is ADHD – Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. As Sami Timimi and Nick Radcliffe have written, it has reached epidemic proportions, particularly amongst boys in North America. Those who have popularised the diagnosis claim that children who are sent to health professionals because they are thought to be overactive, impulsive and to have poor concentration are suffering from a medical condition that needs to be treated with drugs.

The drugs most commonly used with children who have a diagnosis of ADHD are stimulants such as Ritalin, whose chemical properties are indistinguishable from speed and cocaine. They are prescribed to children as young as two, with boys being far more likely to be given them than girls, and they are prescribed in remarkable numbers. Timimi and Radcliffe write:
By 1996 over 6 per cent of school-aged boys in America were taking stimulant medication with more recent surveys showing that in some schools in the Unites States over 17 per cent of boys have the diagnosis and are taking stimulant medication. In the UK prescriptions for stimulants have increased from about 6,000 in 1994 to about 345,000 in the latter half of 2003.
The striking thing about the diagnosis of ADHD is that its symptoms – impulsivity, activity, poor concentration – are so like what we used to see as normal childish behaviour. One informal definition of the disorder is that a child is “always on the go”; if someone had said in the 1950s that a small boy was always on the go, it would have been meant as praise.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree. My particular bugbear is that my children's school refuses to let children wear a coat (an overcoat that is) other than the school approved and branded one. This is so horrible and uncool that no child to my knowdlege wears one (though many parents might do as I did and buy them). As a result on a rainy day my children arrive in school soaking wet as they wear no coat and I refuse to drive them the short distance. Most other parents do drive their children in bad weather. Even the simplest of activities like walking to school falls foul of some unnecessary rules about uniform.