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"We blame the parents"

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Mark Easton | 09:19 UK time, Monday, 2 February 2009

Today's report on childhood deserves its full and provocative title: A Good Childhood: Searching for Values In A Competitive Age.

good childhood coverIt is an uncomfortable read and likely to elicit delight and outrage in equal measure: delight to those who believe that it is British society's lack of values that is the cause of so many of its children's ills; outrage to those who will regard its analysis and conclusions as a moralising attack on individual freedom.

The independent inquiry panel - 11 experts including eight professors - says its report is evidence-based. But its tone is passionate. Adult selfishness is blamed for many of the problems afflicting young people in Britain: high family break-up, teenage unkindness, unprincipled advertising, too much competition in education and ("of course" say the report's authors) "our acceptance of income inequality".

There is an emotional bluntness to the analysis. It talks of the need for "a more caring ethic and for less aggression, a society more based upon the law of love".

"We are arguing," say the authors, "for a significant change of heart in our society."

Britain's relationship with its children is under the spotlight - particularly since analysis by UNICEF two years ago found that young people in the UK were the unhappiest in any of the world's rich nations. The Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, in a contribution to today's report, describes a climate of "sentimentalism and panic".

Echoing Conservative party arguments, the collapse of the traditional family is seen as a critical factor. Lone parents, absent fathers, working mothers - all are listed as potentially damaging to young people's lives.

"Child-rearing is one of the most challenging tasks in life and ideally it requires two people," the report concludes.

It produces evidence suggesting that three times as many three-year-olds living with lone parents or a step-parent have behavioural problems compared to those living with married parents.

Table illustrating the above paragraph. Apologies to users with screen readers. A stylesheet error has prevented us from inserting the data as text

More generally, the report concludes: "Children with step or single parents are 50% more likely to suffer problems with academic achievement, self-esteem, popularity with other children, behavioural difficulties, anxiety and depression."

That is not to say that there are not millions of examples of children and young people growing and thriving in one-parent or step-parent marriages. The argument is that the odds are better in a nuclear family.

"The closeness of fathers to their children influences the children's later psychological well-being even after allowing for the mother's influence," the report states, also suggesting that women's new economic independence has contributed to family break-up.

The report says that parents should have a long-term commitment to each other as well as to the welfare of their child, recommending a civil birth ceremony - conducted by a registrar - explicitly stating the responsibilities parents are accepting. It calls for free parenting classes around birth and professional family support if things get difficult. The choice of staying at home to bring up a family should be more easily available, it argues.

While these ideas may appeal to traditionalists, the report's recommendation for an increase in taxes, significant redistribution of wealth to counter child poverty and huge new investment in mental health services, education and child care may well be criticised as politically naive.

So may its assertion that British society has "tilted too far towards the individual pursuit of private interest and success".

Calls to scrap SATS tests in English schools, abandon school league tables, ban advertising to under-12s and prevent building on any open space where children play are radical, and unlikely to happen in the short term.

Nevertheless, after three years of study and with 35,000 submissions, this is arguably a landmark report on the state of childhood in Britain - and a starting point for a debate as to why a million and a half British children are unhappy and why young people's emotional health appears to be worsening.

While the government might wish to pick on the first line of this report which states that "in many ways our children have never lived so well", the inquiry panel concludes that "more young people are anxious and troubled" with evidence to suggest that "the proportion of 15-to-16-year-olds experiencing significant emotional difficulties rose significantly between 1974 and 1999" and that "more young people have significant behavioural difficulties".

In a postscript to the report, the Archbishop of Canterbury writes that it "resolutely refuses to give an apocalyptic analysis of a generation out of control; but what it does is to turn a sharp eye on the society in which children are being raised and ask how it has become tone-deaf to the real requirements of children".


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