Yesterday, on the BBC breakfast news, there was, what appeared to be, a sweet little news article about a new pre-schoolers' programme on Cbeebies. We like Cbeebies in our house, the programmes tend to be of good quality, there are no advertisements, most of the programmes are age appropriate. This new programme is called Waybuloo, and focuses on teaching children emotional literacy; how to manage their emotions, be a good citizen, learn to share, how to be a good friend. At the end of the segment the reporter turned to an expert in child development and asked her opinion on the programme. The expert's response, I feel, was not what the BBC was hoping for. She stated that there has been a marked rise in the incidence of children with poor mental health, poor self esteem, and poor behavioural skills in the past decade or so, that there was indeed a real and desperate need for us to attempt to improve the emotional intelligence of our nation's children. She said that the best way to teach children emotional literacy was for them to be with their parents going about their day to day business; shopping, visiting friends, going to the park and so on. She said that watching a telly programme was not going to cut it. She said that children should be watching less telly and not more, that telly was counterproductive to the emotional well-being of our children.
This was all she said. However, what struck me about the whole three minute segment was that it should have been a lot longer. We need a real and honest debate the state of our children's well -being, we need to make a discussion of these issues as long running and as all consuming as the MP's allowances scandal, the bailing out the banks scandal and all of the other economic scandals which we've been discussing ad nauseum since the stock market crashed last year.
So, let us deconstruct the three minute article on yesterday's breakfast news.
Point One: our children need educating in emotional literacy.
The idea that the nation's children are somehow in need of help stems from anecdotal evidence supplied by school teachers, health professionals and nursery nurses. The Unicef survey on child well being appears to back up this anecdotal evidence, as does the Children's Society research on child mental health. When it comes to making our children happy and well adjusted we are doing poorly. For some years now, the National Curriculum has tried to address the emotional education of our young people, largely through PSHE (Personal, Social and Health Education), which part of the compulsory education of pupils from the Foundation Stage up until Year 11. Indeed, anecdotal evidence, from Foundation Stage teachers, shows us that their time is increasingly taken up with teaching children the "basics" of good hygiene (including potty training), sitting still, non-violence, using a knife and fork, manners, sharing toys, as well as the weekly PSHE lesson the government has outlined in the curriculum. Basically, many children are starting school poorly socialised. As an ex-teacher, albeit in Keys Stage 3, 4 and 5, I can honestly say that we felt increasingly responsible for the kind of teaching that used to be the province of the family. Not just the obvious sex education, but teaching appropriate expected behaviour, deferred gratification, work ethic, good personal hygiene, respectful language. There were one or tow incidences when parents felt that it was my fault that a child could not behave, not just in school, but also out of school and at home.
Part Two: expert says that the best way to teach emotional literacy is for a child to accompany their parents in their day to day business.
This is an incredibly simple solution to what seems like a very complex problem. Children are to learn emotional skills by looking to the lives of their parents. But what is "day to day business"? Can I suggest a day of shopping, cleaning, playing with friends, visiting parent's friends and family, going to the park and playing with different children, visiting the library, playing with siblings, eating dinner together, helping mum and dad make tea and set the table, watching the TV together. This list all seems very "normal" and "achievable" and I can see a myriad of opportunities in the day I've described to help little ones learn to manage their emotions. From praising their abilities as world's greatest four year-old footballer/painter/dancer/Lego builder/ whatever (self-esteem), to saying they can have sweeties only after they've eaten their tea (deferred gratification), for teaching them that when we visit great aunt Nellie we must be quieter than we would be at our home (behaviour has to be different in certain settings), to helping them eat with cutlery and wipe their own bottoms (good health and self-sufficient hygiene), to giving a cuddle when they're upset ( validating feelings), helping them negotiate with another child who wants to play with their toys (sharing and empathising). I could go on, but I think I've made my point. We can do many things with our children, which cost absolutely nothing, to enable them emotionally.
But if you're canny you'll recognise a huge flaw in my list. I have listed the "day to day" business of the average family twenty or thirty years ago. Many modern families simply do not have the time for the kind of normality I've described. In fact, if there have been marked social changes in human behaviour in the past twenty or thirty years it is these vast differences in the "day to day". Now, more than ever, families are consumed by their paid working week. Fathers, as well as mothers, are working increasingly longer hours and have little time for the domestic banalities which make for emotional teaching opportunities. Few families have time to work and play together and family life is increasingly fragmented, and if not fragmented then segmented, by our choice of media and use of those few, precious leisure hours.
Part Three: children should be watching less telly and not more telly.
I suppose what the expert was trying to say is that TV can cause a sense of ill-being in children as it constantly exposes them to sights and emotions which are far too sophisticated for them to cope with emotionally. The television is a poor teacher, particularly if it is not controlled. Now, when we watch a reasonable amount of TV aimed at pre-schoolers we can see that it is often far too sophisticated for them to cope with: too scary, too emotionally advanced, too adult. I have noticed an increasing tendency for TV aimed at the very young to include narrative based upon emotional peril; characters not owning up about being naughty and letting another character take the blame, characters being accused of stealing, characters loosing someone or something dear to them, characters who feel guilt after breaking a promise. These are common scenarios in what appear to be the basis of what many of us consider to be quality children's programming. However, these cartoons are asking our children to cope with emotions and scenarios far too advanced for them to decipher and make sense of. Whilst many of us are too busy to teach the very basics of emotional literacy, the television is exposing them to the kind of advanced perilous emotions they are simply not ready for. This advanced emotional programming carries on as our children age. Take the average Barbie cartoon, the narrative is appropriate for an eleven year old to handle, and may indeed help them to negotiate problems which appear in their friendship groups, however, it is a six year old girl who watches Barbie...eleven year olds are busy watching Friends or The OC.
The emotional education of any child is the responsibility of the parents. It is an "in house" job and should not be out-sourced to school teachers, health visitors or even the blessed BBC. These organisations can help, can consolidate emotional learning, but they should not be the main provider. However, funding aimed at improving childhood well-being is consistently given to organisations and not families. For example, childcare funding is dramatically weighted towards nursery care and against at-home care. Statistics show that this has helped the learning ability of children who were terribly at risk due to poor family circumstances, but has the opposite affect on the learning ability of children from the average family. If the normal "day to day" business which the expert in the news article described is the best environment for a child to grow in emotional intelligence then perhaps the government should give equal weighting of funding to parents who choose at-home care for their children, as this "normality" is a fair description of the life of a stay at home parent, or job sharing parents, or parents who are lucky enough to have work which is not all consuning of their precious time. British parents who choose this way of caring for children currently pay 44% more tax than their European counterparts, and the Working Family Tax Credit (the old Married Man's Allowance) is heavily weighted towards those who pay for childcare. Also, and importantly, if our aim is to achieve "normality" in the care of our pre-schoolers then we need practised and targeted policy in the application of funding to help those families who come from a background of cultural poverty, and not just concern ourselves with the plight of the over-worked middle classes. Moreover we need an honest and loving debate on the moral implications of family life in the twenty-first century.
Now, I don't have all the answers. I just have a lot of questions and a real passion for family living, community life and the well-being of my country's next generation. This article was not an attempt to bash working mums, as I soon will join that band of sisters, but an attempt to express the real concerns I have regarding the consistent downplaying of what constitutes good parenting, and effective family life, by the powers that be. I'd love to hear your thoughts on the matter, but I'll leave you with the links to a few organisations which debate these matters in greater detail than I ever could.
Civitas - a think-tank concerned with "civil" living, education, the EU and family life.
Time for Parenting - a group of full-time mothers who lobby for equal funding for at home care.
Oliver James - a child-psychologist whose short articles on parenting have appeared in the Guardian just recently, but is, however, more famous for his books Affluenza and The Selfish Capitalist.
The Children's Society - a charity concerned with the well-being of children in the UK.
Each of these sites have links to others dealing with similar issues.