Palmer’s central argument is that, while adults are benefiting enormously from living in a wealthier, healthier society where electronic technologies have enriched our lives, children are suffering because their childhood experiences are being polluted by the range of technologies and lifestyle choices offered by the modern world.
Electronic technologies are great for us but are not good for our children. Because of them, the world is changing too fast. People are finding it harder and harder to keep up, and are becoming confused about their priorities. Parents, instead of spending time reading to their children at night or talking to them, plonk them in front of the television and treat it as an electronic babysitter. They buy their children electronic games and junk food to keep them quiet, and spend less and less time with them. Thus they deprive them of what they need most - a good old-fashioned upbringing where parents are in charge, providing a safe, calm and nurturing environment, where they can develop at their own pace and learn important moral and cultural values that are the foundation of a stable society.
Palmer issues dire warnings about the consequences of complacency about the state of childhood. She claims that ‘every year children become more distractible, impulsive and self-obsessed - less able to learn, to enjoy life, to thrive socially.’ She urges us to recognise that if we don’t do something about sorting out our child-raising practices now, our whole culture is under threat from the ‘barbarians in the womb’. She sees parents as largely failing in the task of passing on important cultural and moral values. Her frequent references to childhood as toxic present a very clear message that, along with the melting ice cap, bad child-raising practices may destroy the world as we know it.
No doubt there are problems with the way the adult world is reluctant to stand up for itself, and defend the historic achievements of human civilisation, as has been much discussed on spiked, but panic-mongering that children today are having toxic experiences, with potentially disastrous consequences, seems just to fuel perceptions that the present and future are dangerous lands. Palmer is optimistic that things can improve and makes positive suggestions about how parents can make a better job of raising their children, but I think her starting point is wrong and many of her suggestions are patronising.
First of all, I really don’t recognise the picture that Palmer paints of the state of childhood. In my own social circles (and I know quite a lot of families with young children) anecdotal evidence contradicts the idea that parents spend little time with their children. In fact many parents’ lives seem to be more centred on their children than they ever were in the past. Whether you go to a shopping centre in Manchester, a park in London, or a suburban swimming pool, you find these places swarming with families - parents and children, enjoying time in each other’s company. And while I recognise that you can’t tell by these public appearances what goes on behind closed doors, it’s hard to imagine that the generally relaxed demeanour of these people hides poisonous perils in family lives overshadowed by the distractions of electronic gadgetry.
Again, in my own experience, television, computer games and the internet are just more resources in children’s lives, for education, entertainment and play, not something that dominates every waking moment, as Palmer describes. Unsurprisingly, children’s relationship with media is much more complex than the figures suggest. It may be shocking that children appear to watch television an average of nearly four hours a day, but a key finding in a recent American report demonstrated that ‘Young people who spend the most time with media also report spending more time with their parents, being physically active, and pursuing other hobbies.’ (Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8-18 year-olds, Kaiser Family Foundation, 2005, Executive summary p14.)
Palmer draws upon her own experience in the fields of parenting and education and backs up her analysis with a huge amount of expertise and research. But the common starting point and underlying assumption of all this has to be challenged. She, like many of the experts and researchers she quotes, underestimates the resilience of human beings. Rather than draw courage from the evidence of history - which reveals the human capacity to make and embrace change in a way that enriches our lives - she wants to warn us of the damage it can do, particularly to our young. She makes a distinction between adults and children - adults can handle change but children can be damaged by it. But if this were the case, human civilisation would surely have disintegrated well before the 21st century.
My grandmother was born in 1900 and died in 2000. Her generation, as they grew up and raised their own children, experienced a huge amount of change (frightening and exciting) - the development of the car and road network, the invention the aeroplane and development of commercial flying, two world wars, several social revolutions and major national and international upheavals, the development of radio, television, cinema and the computer, to name but a few. In the 21st century life continues to change, but hardly more than generations in the past have had to cope with.
The development of the media, which Palmer sees as particularly threatening to young children, provides huge opportunities for the expansion of what people can know and understand about the world. Children have embraced these opportunities as part of the world in which they are growing up. Quite possibly these changes have also, as Palmer fears, influenced the way they think. But is this necessarily a bad thing? While being able to read and write is essential to the processes of mental development, there is every possibility that young children’s access to the media may be expanding their minds.
Palmer fears that parents do not control their children’s media use sufficiently. She joins the hoards of experts telling us that the majority of children watch more television and play more computer games than is good for them, making them susceptible to advertisers and the consumer culture, on the one hand, or to social isolation, on the other. However, the evidence of media harm is contestable. And, I wouldn’t mind betting, when it comes down to it, the vast majority of parents do find a way of managing their children’s media use and consumption, making intelligent judgements about what and how much is good for their children.
But a major problem with Palmer’s whole approach is that she makes normal behaviour seem exceptional. For example, she quotes the work of Dr Peter Hobson, who wrote the excellent book, The Cradle of Thought (2002, Macmillan). Hobson convincingly demonstrates, through his close observations of babies, the essential role of the mother (or primary carer) in the development of a baby’s language and thought processes. On the basis of this Palmer instructs mothers to engage in communicative activity with their babies from the moment of birth. However, as Hobson demonstrates, this is the practice of all normal mothers. In his observations, only mothers who had severe mental health problems, a tiny minority, failed to engage sufficiently with their babies, thus endangering their psychological development. To instruct mothers to do what comes naturally to almost everyone of them is not only redundant. It also serves to exaggerate the problem of children missing out on crucial stages of development.
Many teachers, frustrated by the pressures and difficulties of educating children from diverse backgrounds, will love this book. Palmer represents their perspective. Her book seems largely motivated by frustrations aired by teachers she has met in the course of her consultancy work. Teachers, along with other professionals who deal with families, have increasingly tended to blame their problems with children on the failures of parents. The few aggressive parents tend to attract media attention where they are presented as raging hordes determined to undermine the authority of teachers, while a few easily distractible children are presented as a threat to civilisation in the classroom.
Palmer’s book, while it might be welcomed by teachers (and Palmer is speaking at a lot of education conferences around the country over the autumn term), it does a real disservice to parents in reinforcing the widespread conception, among professionals at least, that they are not up to the job. She may feel that she is contributing to the debate about how we can maintain educational and cultural standards and preserve what is best about the achievements of modern world. But the problem isn’t one of child-raising practices, but a much broader one of a collective loss of confidence in the historic achievements of human civilisation. This is not something that will ever be tackled at the level of child-raising: it’s a matter of public debate, not private practice.
Wendy Earle is commissioning editor of educational publishing at the British Film Institute and about to start a PhD on young people and the internet at the Institute of Education, University of London. She is chairing the debate Is TV good for children? at the Battle of Ideas in London in October 2006, and recently published Can TV remote-control our kids? on spiked.