Friday 27 March 2009

A crisis of adulthood

Reclaiming Childhood, by Helene Guldberg

The title of this excellent book rather reminds me of the recent Reclaiming Social Work initiative launched by a local authority I used to work for. Whatever the merits of the initiative itself, its title suggested a call to action on the part of a demoralised social work profession apparently reeling from one high-profile child tragedy after another, to rediscover what was so foolishly discarded – in this case, the primacy of good old-fashioned social work as opposed to the managerial target-led approach that famously keeps practitioners confined to their desks.

By contrast, Helene Guldberg attacks the ‘toxic’ interventions of officialdom and ‘experts’ in the children’s lobby, which she says threaten to undermine the nurturing role that adults play in their families and communities. These interventions tend to introduce awkwardness, tentativeness and insecurity into families, she says, and spread distrust and suspicion in communities. For this reason, the ‘army’ of professionals charged with preventing and pre-empting abuse are ‘a part of the problem’ not its solution. It is their failure of ‘compassion and common sense’ that should concern us, not the need to ‘work together’ or to send everybody on courses to spot signs of an allegedly prevalent abuse (as each and every public inquiry seems to conclude ad nauseum).

While the horrific injuries and torturous deaths suffered by a tiny number of children at the hands of their supposed carers are something by which we are all scandalised, the government’s disproportionate response (see its Every Child Matters agenda) has explicitly sought to mainstream official child protection. As Guldberg shows, this is likely to have unintended consequences for all children and families, and for society as a whole. It is also, she argues, likely to mean that professionals don’t see the proverbial wood for the trees so intent are they on identifying the slightest hint of discomfort or disadvantage in Every Child’s life.

And yet, though Guldberg is hostile to the often spurious claims and zealous interventions of those charged with protecting children and promoting their welfare, she shares with my old local authority a wish to redress what has been lost, and to return to first principles in the name of promoting children’s welfare. She also shares what is as much an attempt to reclaim adulthood and the positive role of adults in children’s lives, as it is about reclaiming childhood. The two, says the author, must go together.

While the first parts of the book explode many of the myths of modern childhood – and berate the potential damage done by the myth-makers themselves – in the final part she points the finger at adults. For not letting ‘kids be kids’, ‘parents be parents’, ‘teachers be teachers’ (as opposed to social workers) and, perhaps most importantly of all, for not allowing ‘strangers to be friends’. Our fearful orientation to the world and each other, and our instinct to regulate have ‘narrowed children’s world as surely as it narrows adult’s minds’ to the potential for mutual support, she says.

Guldberg goes beyond the childhood debate to situate it in a broader critique of the doom-laden anti-human outlook of our times. We are, if you like, guilty of projecting our own anxieties about the present and uncertainties about the future onto children. She quotes historian Hugh Cunningham who describes how for our ancestors ‘[c]hildhood was something to be got through on the way, they hoped, to something better’. For me it is that ‘something better’ to look forward to that is missing today. That is why we find it so hard to articulate a positive view of childhood - the next generation.

The notion that obese children will die before their parents, for instance, is not only a grimly fantastical prophecy with not a shred of evidence to support it, as the author rightly points out. It also marks, in my view, a failure of imagination of what a better future might look like for all children. It seems to me that these particular children have come to stand for an illiberal elite’s distaste for what they regard as a degenerate mass culture of consumer greed and a rapacious appetite for ‘junk’. Which is perhaps why the only ‘vision’ for children that our leaders are able to muster up, is apparently based on the rare and tragic case of a child who was tortured to death – Victoria Climbie.

Wallowing in tales of obesity epidemics and child murder, and unable to imagine a better future, there is a tendency to dismiss the view of children as adults-in-waiting. Instead we celebrate children in themselves, in their own right. This might sound like a good thing, reminiscent of Guldberg’s description of the classical notions of childhood inspired by the writings of Locke and Rousseau. But in today’s context it really isn’t. Those who champion children’s ‘rights’ do not embrace the special qualities of childhood but rather express a childish attitude to adulthood, adult society, and all that it represents.

Mixed messages

Indeed, Guldberg describes a ‘screwed-up’ take on children these days. The modern view of childhood is ambiguous to say the least, with children cosseted and fussed over on the one hand, and pathologised and criminalised on the other. Parents are scolded for not letting their children run free in public, while youth workers are charged with clearing them off the streets, she says. All at once parents find themselves scapegoated for not letting their kids out of their sight, while their accusers are busily designing out any hint of risk or challenge in the public environment.

Even the backlash in official circles (touched on by Guldberg), particularly in relation to attitudes to children’s freedom to play outdoors, hasn’t escaped the prism of risk-consciousness. The notion of ‘cushioned’ spaces and ‘positive’ risks only confirms the confusion of policy makers as they chase the illusion of risk rather than embracing its open-ended reality. Its hard not to conclude that the emergence of the ‘hothouse’, ‘captive’ or ‘battery’ child is as much a consequence of supervisory, surveilling, regulatory and risk-averse officialdom, as it is down to over-protective parenting.

To blame parents is to shift the blame from what is the government’s own compulsion to intervene, to monitor, and to attach the greatest significance to the most trivial of matters from gender-appropriate toys to the food that children must eat. Over-protection is very much a hand-me-down from officials and self-appointed experts, with parents constantly playing catch-up desperately wondering what they should be worrying about next. 

Reclaiming adulthood

While the phenomenon of the hyper- and the ‘helicopter’ parent is a problem, this is not to say – as Guldberg makes clear – that children don’t need adult guidance to ‘propel’ them onto new challenges, or conversely to protect them from taking risks or facing challenges for which they are ill-prepared. Childhood has its dark side, but by always protecting children from it we do them no favours, for we make it all the harder for them to confront bullies, busy roads or dodgy strangers when they encounter them. We need to rediscover a positive orientation to children and childhood rather that fretting about it and them.

Perhaps it is our own sensitivity as adults to the ‘rough and tumble’ of everyday life that we are projecting onto children. Bullying is not only exaggerated today, and defined so broadly as to be even more unremarkable than it ever was, as Guldberg explains – the concern has also shifted from the playground to the workplace, with HR managers as much as head teachers developing strategies to deal with it. Reclaiming Childhood confirms that we don’t seem to know what a normal childhood looks like anymore, and are apparently unable to distinguish pretty ordinary if unpleasant experiences, from serious threats to children’s welfare.

It is only through contact with adults that children can learn to ‘read’ them, says Guldberg. What kind of a society requires adults to have a criminal check if they are likely to come into contact with a stranger’s children? Why should adults with nothing but a healthy interest in children feel the need to quicken their pace, should they find themselves outside a school playground? Is it really the case that we can no longer take pleasure in, or accept a sense of responsibility for, what children add to our communities? The fear of what other adults might think, even a distrust of one’s own motives brought on by a pervasive sense of doubt and suspicion about everyday interactions, is not a happy state of affairs (or a safe one).

That these anxieties are endorsed by those who would claim to speak on children’s behalf is no excuse for their poisonous claims and dirty-minded misanthropy. Neither is their apparent obliviousness to the damage done by the speculation of what adults might do if left alone with a child. Despite the hysterical speculations of those who should know better, says Guldberg, ‘[c]hildren do not respond in a uniform way to today’s culture of fear’. While some will internalise adult anxieties, others are ‘coping rather well’ and seem unaffected. Ultimately she is optimistic that children will come to the conclusion that for all the noise to the contrary adults tend to be ‘compassionate and caring rather than cruel and abusing’.

Modern life is bad

The so-called ‘crisis of childhood’ is not a consequence of the modern world, she says, which has in so many ways made children’s lives much better. It is instead the wave of social pessimism and misanthropy that has enveloped our society that is to blame. It inevitably colours our understanding of what children’s lives are like and the world they inhabit. In each and every instance where society stands accused of crimes against childhood, a little interrogation courtesy of Guldberg casts more than a little doubt.

Children are no more captive to popular culture and commercialism than their parents are under siege from their ‘pester power’, for instance. She describes how parents are said to be victims of their children’s financial demands so seduced are they by the hypnotic power of our shopping culture. And yet, I have since heard a spokesperson for the Children’s Society assert that we should be sharing our recession worries (or ‘traumas’ as they put it) with the kids. So, either children are burning a hole in their parents’ pockets with their Oliver-esque demands for more – which is a bad thing – or parents are told to unburden their monetary woes on their children, which is apparently a good thing. So much for protecting them from the horrors of the adult world!

Let’s grow up

It is increasingly apparent that those in the business of advocating on behalf of children, or protecting their welfare, are losing their sense of perspective and getting increasingly hysterical about the ‘state of childhood’ and much else besides. For instance, Guldberg quotes Al Aynsley Green, Children’s Commissioner for England, commenting on the UK’s infamous bottom place in the UNICEF league-table on children’s well-being. Not only was this a problem for children, he said, but it was indicative of ‘a crisis at the heart of our society’. More recently the Good Childhood Inquiry, published by a similarly downbeat Children’s Society, duly confirmed what Guldberg says is the ‘one thing that everyone seems to agree on’. That is ‘that growing up in modern times … is Really Bad’.

Reclaiming Childhood is a plea for all concerned to take a step back from this hysteria, and to have a grown up discussion about the state of society and what this means for our children. As things stand, far from creating a more child-friendly culture, today’s low view of adults, and its exaggerated sense of children’s vulnerabilities, can only deter children from seeking the adult support and guidance they need. For all the talk of protecting children from a risky world, instead of feeling encouraged to ‘safeguard’ children, or step in when they need to, adults are likely to get the message that they should stay well clear of them. Shorn of a sense of responsibility for children in public they will avert their gaze accordingly out of an instinct for self-preservation. This standoff is in nobody’s interests. Actually, putting the myths of the child-worriers aside, this is something about which we really should be worried.


Dave Clements is co-editor of The Future of Community: Reports of a Death Greatly Exaggerated and convenor of the Institute of Ideas Social Policy Forum.


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