Monday, February 2, 2009

What Makes a Good Childhood?

Today saw the release of `A Good Childhood', produced by the Children's Society following a three year study and 30 odd thousand submissions examined by a panel of international experts.

Its conclusions are, as these studies often seem to be, totally depressing. In short, children now are more anxious, depressed and stressed than ever due, in the main, to the corrupting influence of a hypercompetitive society which places self-seeking materialism above all others. It then goes on to list a wide range of measures ranging from the banning of sats to the end of advertising targeting kids.

As a parent I often feel mixed about these studies. For part of me feels sure that the the lives of many of our young people is a lot better than it was in my day. I went to a school where kids were regularly `slippered' (hit with a trainer), bullying was rife and mostly unchallenged and the concept of `self-esteem' was had not yet entered the vocabulary. This seems Dickensian today.

I am not one of these people who thinks it was better back then. Quite the opposite. It was bloody miserable. Especially when I compare it to the lengths gone to these days to ensure schools, particularly, to instil and ethos into their pupils.

Even now, I am often taken aback by how gentle many 15 and 16 year old boys are compared to their peers twenty five years ago. Likewise, when I go visiting schools to send my daughter to, the sheer quality of state schools, and the care taken over everything around child welfare, I find very impressive.

All of this, of course, has to compete with the reality that, yes, society is now more obsessed with looks, celebrity and instant gratification. Being fat or ugly has never been fun, but I am sure it is worse today than it was in my day. Cyber bullying has replaced having your head flushed down the bogs and designer phones have replaced a pair of Farrah's as status symbols.

Do I fear for my kids? Yes I do a bit. The early sexualisation of young people cannot be good news. The web and mobiles are just terrifying for a long list of reasons. Body fetishism scares me. The fact that my daughter is quite likely to feel fat and ugly at 8 is grotesque.

But also, I am not that worried. Awareness of how children actually feel is now there is a way it wasn't in the past. As a society, we now know what a good childhood looks like. There are millions of parents out there, like me, willing to strain every fibre in their being to create that good childhood. The effort being made, which exceeds that made in the past, I believe, will surely count for something?

The truth is, I suspect, that we will see, as with all of these things, an increasingly stratified picture. On the one hand, lots of kids with parents willing and able to create a great childhood. On the other, a great many whose parents are too busy working, or with themselves - or not there at all - who emerge into adulthood insecure, ineffective and unhappy.

My belief is that childhood has always been tough for some people. Each generation has its challenges. My own parents grew up in post-war austerity. Their own parents in absolute poverty and neglect. I grew up in relative prospertity but in a society in which it was still seen as OK to hit children. My own kids are growing up in a high consumption, high pressure society in which status is seen as everything.

It will always be tough. This report can be viewed in historical terms as a report which captures the perils of childhood in the 21st century.

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