A nasty mix of neoliberalism and the Tories’ austerity policies are having appalling effects on our children’s health and welfare, writes RICHARD HOUSE
OUR Machiavelli-in-drag Prime Minister Theresa May’s totally unconvincing Damascene conversion to fairness and social justice, if it’s to have any substance at all, would necessitate nothing short of a revolution in her government and party’s attitude to our children’s well being.
And like millions of others, I’m definitely not holding my breath. The progressive left needs to fight the class-based inhumanity of Tory policies on many fronts.
One battle that’s crucial for us to win, and on which the Tories are particularly vulnerable — and yet which has inexplicably been neglected by the left — is the parlous state of childhood in austerity Britain.
Modern childhood is now unquestionably cast in the image of toxic neoliberalism. For capitalism, consumerism and their latest noxious manifestation, austerity politics, are truly toxic for our children’s health and wellbeing, from birth right through to young adulthood.
For both ethical and electoral reasons, then, it’s surely essential that Labour affords this issue the importance it warrants before the next general election.
Over a decade ago, Sue Palmer’s provocative book Toxic Childhood was published and ever since, Sue and I have been planning campaigns, articles and press letters — often with other like-minded colleagues — aimed at protecting the quality of childhood experience from the worst excesses of a crass technological modernity and competitive consumer capitalism.
Copious research and several years’ consultation with a host of worldleading authorities underpinned Toxic Childhood, weaving a rich and insightful narrative that revealed a momentous cultural shift in children’s experience that the more narrowly conceived approach to research beloved of “ivory-tower” arm-chair academics would never have revealed.
The idea for a multiple-signatory press letter on “toxic childhood” then emerged, and in our first letter of September 2006, we argued that we were “deeply concerned at the escalating incidence of childhood depression and children’s behavioural and developmental conditions.
We believe this is largely due to a lack of understanding, on the part of both politicians and the general public, of the realities and subtleties of child development.”
We continued: “In a fast-moving hyper-competitive culture, today’s children are expected to cope with an ever-earlier start to formal schoolwork and an overly academic test-driven primary curriculum.
They are pushed by market forces to act and dress like mini-adults and exposed via the electronic media to material which would have been considered unsuitable for children even in the very recent past.”
And further still — and most controversially at the time — that “the mental health of an unacceptable number of children is being unnecessarily compromised, and that this is almost certainly a key factor in the rise of substance abuse, violence and self-harm amongst our young people.”
A front-page lead story headlined: “Junk culture is poisoning our children” accompanied the letter, and within hours it had turned into a global news story.
With the ensuing multiple media appearances and invitations to write articles and address conferences, the cultural impact of the original 2006 letter, signed by over 100 eminent professionals and academics, was enormous.
A year later we followed up with another letter, this time on play, and signed by 280 experts from across the globe. We argued that “Play — particularly outdoor, unstructured, loosely supervised play — appears to be vital to children’s all-round health and wellbeing.
It develops their physical co-ordination and control; provides opportunities for the first-hand experiences that underpin their understanding of and engagement with the world; facilitates social development (making and keeping friends, dealing with problems, working collaboratively); and cultivates creativity, imagination and emotional resilience.”
Many features of modern life in advanced capitalism have eroded children’s play — not least, the ready availability of sedentary, commercially driven and addictive screenbased entertainment, the aggressive marketing of over-elaborate, commercialised toys and a test-driven school (and pre-school) curriculum whereby formal learning is substantially displacing free unstructured play.
We therefore called for “a wideranging and informed public dialogue about the intrinsic nature and value of play in children’s healthy development, and how we might ensure its place at the heart of 21st-century childhood.”
And so we come to the present day, with a 10-year anniversary press letter appearing in the Guardian on Boxing Day, co-organised with Dr Sharie Coombes and signed by a host of cultural luminaries — including Rowan Williams, the NUT’s Kevin Courtney, (Sirs) Jonathon Porritt, Anthony Seldon and Richard Bowlby; writer Philip Pullman; psychologists Oliver James, Susie Orbach and Sue Gerhardt; educationalists Robin Alexander, Penelope Leach, Sir Christopher Ball, Guy Claxton and Sir Tim Brighouse and a host of eminent professors — including Baroness Susan Greenfield, Lord Richard Layard, Andrew Samuels and Sami Timimi.
If all these eminent people, with stellar professional and academic reputations to protect, are prepared to sign a public letter as outspoken as ours about children’s wellbeing, then something surely is rotten to the core in neoliberal Britain and we must urgently do something about it.
In our latest letter, we argue that, notwithstanding widespread public concern about the issues we raised in 2006, subsequent policy-making has been half-hearted and chronically short-termist.
With physical health problems related to weight issues continuing to escalate, and mental health problems amongst children now approaching crisis levels, this will have incalculable deleterious consequences for societal wellbeing many decades into the future.
The letter signatories are urging government to take immediate action, including: the development of a coherent, well-funded approach to care and education from pre-birth to age seven, including a kindergarten stage for 3–7 year-olds emphasising social and emotional development and outdoor play, national guidelines on screen-based technology for 0–12 year-olds, produced by recognised authorities in child health/development.
We’re also recommending the appointment of a cabinet-level minister for children, remaining in post for a full parliament and whose department would audit all government policies for their impact on children’s health and wellbeing.
Or as an absolute minimum, we urge the setting up of a non party-political Standing Conference on Children’s Health and Well-being, meeting and reporting regularly to Parliament.
It’s nothing short of scandalous that politicians and policy-makers have done next to nothing to address the “toxic childhood” issues that Sue Palmer first flagged up a decade ago.
Indeed, with matters now far worse and with children’s mental health and behavioural problems at record levels, the time for pussy-footing around politicians and policy-makers is over. To be blunt, it’s time to shame them into doing something substantive and meaningful — or future historians will doubtless look back on the current era as one of political child abuse.
The current Tory government clearly has neither the will nor the means to address these grave issues, for to do so with any effectiveness, they’d be undermining the very market ideology and class allegiances to which they are incurably wedded — and which we know to be actively generating burgeoning child poverty and many of the noxious symptoms of neoliberal “toxic childhood” syndrome.
There’s surely an open goal here for Jeremy Corbyn and his education and health teams. There are few issues more likely to capture the concerns and the passions of the voters (whether as parents or grandparents — or just concerned citizens who care deeply about our collective future) than children’s well-being.
Any dispassionate analysis demonstrates that neoliberal austerity policies are having appalling impacts on our children’s well-being — storing up enough adult health problems to keep an army of psychotherapists in business in perpetuity.
Certainly, any policy agenda embracing fairness and social justice would need to address children’s well-being as a core concern. Enter, stage left, the humane, child-friendly politics of Jeremy and his team’s policy offer for 2020.
We know from conversations that Jeremy is very sympathetic to these questions and to make a strong, high-profile commitment to children’s wellbeing as a major focus of all government policy-making surely has to be an election winner for Labour in 2020 — in the process exposing the cynical, empty rhetoric of Theresa May’s phoney pretensions to being a champion of social justice.
Dr Richard House is a Chartered Psychologist, a former psychotherapist and university lecturer, a childhood writer and campaigner for two decades, and a strong supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s political project.
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