Childhood in the UK Today

The Good Childhood Inquiry

In the light of the publication of the report of the Good Childhood Inquiry, and the media discussion that has resulted, here are some personal reflections on what constitutes a good childhood.  The article below was originally published by CCPAS in their Caring magazine in Spring 2007.

What is Meant by a Good Childhood?

For me, a good childhood is one that is characterised by freedom to learn and to grow.  Children should be able to take for granted the unconditional love and affirmation of their parents so that they can get on with the “work” of being a child.  This work is about exploring the environment around them physically, emotionally, intellectually and spiritually.  A good childhood is one in which the child experiences wonder, excitement and fulfilment as he discovers his place in the world.  This freedom to explore and to learn has to be within the protection of boundaries but these boundaries and restrictions should gradually open out as the child ventures further from the embrace of his parents.  This childhood learning and growing doesn’t just happen within the confines of a nuclear family; it needs to start there, but a rich and fulfilling childhood is a fundamentally social experience.  A child’s place in the world is within a community and Christians believe this is a community is presided over by a loving and forgiving God.  The brief description of Jesus’ childhood in Luke chapter 2 offers a tantalising glimpse of the good childhood: “The child grew and became strong; he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him.”

What are the Conditions for a Good Childhood?

The first condition for good childhood is good parenting.  By this I mean parents who are competent at the practical tasks of parenting and benevolent in their attitude towards their offspring.  Parents who are preoccupied- either with getting and spending and the struggle for survival, or with their own emotional distress or relationship problems- are not available, psychologically or physically, for their children.  There has to be an element of sacrifice in parental love that puts the needs and interests of the child first; this means that childhood (or rather the particular child) is valued more highly than other things.

It follows that if the first condition for good childhood is good parenting, then all those professionals who work with children and their families should be valued and rewarded.  Supporting parents in enabling children to learn and to grow should be seen as work that is vitally important and highly valued.  The children’s workforce, whether based in schools or other community settings, should work in partnership with parents in order to promote the welfare of children.  Rather than using “children’s rights” as a slogan to undermine parents, children’s rights and parental rights should be seen as fundamentally complimentary.  Of course, it is sometimes necessary to intervene in families to protect children from parents or carers who are abusive, neglectful or simply incapacitated by problems of their own but the fact remains that for the vast majority of children the best way to help children is empowering and educating their parents so that they can be better parents to their children.

If childhood is a fundamentally social thing then the whole of society need to become more respectful and honouring of children.  A culture which values and respects human life in all its diversity should have a special place in its thinking and imagination for children.  Children can teach us all about the importance of simple human affection and the connection one human being can make with another.  They can teach us about the place of joy, excitement and wonder in life.

What Obstacles Exist to These Conditions Today?

Parents appear to be struggling with a collective loss of confidence in their role.  There has never been more advice about parenting on the TV, radio, newspapers and magazines; yet parents still seem unsure about what is expected of them.  Mothers are torn between being at home with young children or going out to work and fathers are expected to work longer hours than almost anywhere else in Europe.  The material expectations that parents have for their children are higher than ever before but neither children nor their parents appear particularly happy and contented.  As a society we look to family life to bring us deep fulfilment yet the reality, for many families, is that family life fails to deliver these aspirations.  Families, rather than being places of security and harmony “a haven in a heartless world”, are often experienced as places of conflict, anxiety, frantic busyness or quiet despair.

This loss of nerve amongst parents may be partially caused by the fact that some of the advice they/we are being given is confusing or contradictory.  Are children a blessing from God or are they an economic burden?  Are children to be enjoyed and appreciated, or feared and controlled?  Are children to be touched and embraced or rejected and kept at arm’s length?  Are children to be set free to explore and have adventures or are they to be kept in a sterile, risk free environment?  This ambivalence which on the one hand idealises childhood but on the other hand demonises children is very confusing for parents; small wonder that they/we don’t know what we are supposed to be doing!

In a late modern society where social mobility means that family connections and community links are weaker than before many of the traditional sources of experience and wisdom about caring for children have dried up.  Children no longer grow up in large families surrounded by siblings of all ages and aunts, uncles and cousins within the context of a close knit community where there is an abundance of role models for child care as well as lots of opportunities for trying out the caring role with younger children.  Parents within a small, nuclear family are thrown on their own resources, augmented only by professional advice along the lines of “supernanny knows best”.  This well-meaning advice has the potential to further demoralise and discourage parents who feel that they will never live up to the standards that are being set for them by the experts.

Finding a healthy balance between care and control is perhaps the area in which parents most struggle.  As a reaction against over-authoritarian parenting styles following the second world war society moved towards much more permissive approaches to children.  Parents were encouraged to believe that if only they just left their children to get on with it they would learn for themselves.  Self-discovery was the order of the day and parents were very hesitant about imposing any sort of sanctions or controls on their children’s behaviour.  The problem is that rather than thriving within this permissive environment children tend to become insecure and confused: faced with a million choices but having no criteria on which to base their decisions.  The absence or abdication of parental authority leads not to liberation for children but to turmoil and anxiety.

Another confounding irony is that increased awareness of the dangers to children both within the family and in wider society has led to a paralysing intolerance of any risk at all.  Children are being denied opportunities for outside play, exploration and discovery because of a fear of abuse which is almost paranoid in its intensity.  Fathers especially, and male carers, report being frightened of touching their children in case they are accused of sexual abuse.  Members of the public are afraid of approaching a young child who looks lost and lonely in a public place because their actions are likely to be construed as having a sinister intent.  Teachers and others working with children feel obliged to repress their instinctive impulses to reach out to a young child in distress for fear that they will transgress rigid procedures and be reprimanded for inappropriate and unprofessional contact.  Is it any wonder that parents are unsure of themselves if professionals are so anxious about relating in a natural and spontaneous way to a child?

Family breakdown is also undoubtedly a cause of a great deal of pain, anxiety and distress to children, but for some children the level of emotional turbulence and hostility between warring parents prior to the separation is even more difficult to bear.  Ideally, children need their parents to be committed to each other, through thick and thin, in sickness and in health, as well as to them as children, and it is not unusual for children to feel guilty about their parents’ arguments as though they were responsible for fracturing the relationship.  Although the aftermath of separation for children may mean relative peace and quiet, it also often means further adjustments and economic hardship.  The parent with care of the children may then commence another relationship and children have the further challenge of adjusting to a new parental figure and possibly step siblings that have come into the household with their parent’s new partner.

Perhaps it is the extent of social change and the degree of rapidity with which it is happening that is the ultimate cause of the loss of nerve around children that is described above.  If children are our future but we don’t know what that future will be that leaves parents, educators, carers and adults generally with a dilemma.  How do we prepare the next generation for life if we can barely guess what that life will be like?  We need a set of enduring values that we ourselves believe in sufficiently to want to pass on to our children.

What Changes Could be Made that Would be Likely to Improve Things?

Many of the changes that are necessary in order to promote good childhood are attitudinal rather than organisational, they are about creating a child and family friendly culture within the United Kingdom.  Some of these changes are to do with finding a better and more child centred balance between different, sometimes contrasting, principles.  For example, children need both freedom and boundaries and parents can emphasise one of these at the expense of the other.  The balance between care and control is a difficult one to maintain and parents need consistent messages about how to deal with children both from professionals and from the media.  Similarly, we would want to encourage parents to feel able to ask for professional help when they need it but, on the other hand, unless there are sound reasons for state intervention parents should normally be allowed to get on with the job of parenting their children with minimal interference from outside the family.

Schools are becoming increasingly pressured places and this is a worry for children and their parents, particularly in primary school.  Parents need to be reminded that academic success is not the only purpose of education, and that emotional literacy and personal and social skills are also important.  If educational attainment as measured by SATS results is the only measure of a good education then many children and their families will lose out.  The every child matters agenda needs to be embedded in every school and parents need to be encouraged to be as assertive and demanding of schools in this area as they are in terms of the school’s exam results.

With regard to child protection we need less paranoia and more good sense.  Risks in society, including risks to children, are to be managed rather than avoided or denied.  The rising tide of litigation has led to a defensive approach to child protection which is not in the best interests of children.  A recovery of trust in public life would do much to reverse this tide and raise levels of confidence in the public sector in general, especially those professionals who work directly with children such as teachers, social workers, carers etc.  Victims of abuse need to be listened to and offered therapeutic help if and when they require it.  Offenders need to be treated firmly but with compassion, recognising that criminalisation is not an appropriate response to the majority of less serious child maltreatment.

I believe that the Christian church has a distinctive contribution to make in this debate about what constitutes a good childhood.  Its independence from the apparatus of the state and its roots in families and communities across the globe gives it a unique perspective.  Although it is neither always popular nor comfortable the prophetic voice of the church has a vital role to play in society.  The message of the church is that the good childhood is ultimately a matter of values and the state of childhood in our society is the responsibility of us all.

Bill Stone, March 2009

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