Wednesday, 20 May 2009

In Which She Talks About Child Well-Being...Again!

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.
In conclusion.
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.


Anonymous said...

Amen chuckle butty.

Did you watch The Trouble with Working Women on Beeb2? I'm halfway through the second part.

The thing I noticed was that no-one seemed to be able to have an honest debate/discussion because of the fear of being politically incorrect...those who did forge ahead and speak their mind were in general dunderhead men (i.e. woman's place is in the reasoned explanation). This always gets in the way of an honest discussion.

We are also very emotional about anything to do with our children, which again gets in the way of a reasoned discussion. When some professor chappie explained that studies indicate that children put into fulltime childcare from an early age tend to be more aggressive and antisocial than children who are not put into childcare at an early age. The TV presenter woman (3 kids in childcare from early age) got upset and a little cross. He made her feel guilty. He insisted that guilt was sometimes a good thing because it makes us evaluate where we are going and what we are doing in our lives. I agree - we have a conscience for a reason - guilt isn't always the right feeling but it does make us assess what we can and can't do about a situation.

One woman, who set up the first ever women's refuge, said that we as women had shot ourselves in the foot a bit wanting equality in the workplace because now people can't manage without two wages coming into the home. She sees women more and more exhausted and uable to give anymore to their children when they return from work; and when alls said and done when you sit back and look back on your life do you want to be proudest of your children, or your career? I thought that was a good point (though I do believe that if a man and a woman both do the same job they should be paid the same - my Mum disagrees, lol!).

Seems we're more bothered about our paychecks than our children. One woman said that once she'd pushed her baby out she'd be straight on her blackberry checking in at work. Lol! She already had kids too. Madness, I tell you it's madness!

As you say, we shouldn't get at the working woman, we shouldn't get at anyone. Instead, we should be looking at ourselves and our children and really seriously talking about how we care sufficiently and well for them in our own families - to raise them, as you say, to be emotionally stable, happy and healthy.

If we want children we need to assess how we will care for them ourselves. If we have to outsource them in a major fashion in order to pursue a fulfilling life then perhaps we ought not have children? Is that too harsh? Or should we be putting the 'fulfillment' needs of the adult before the child? A dogs home won't give a dog to a family that cannot spend enough time with it because of the emotional distress it causes the animal...I find that a bit disturbing. They do say the Brits care more for their pets than their children! :/

Love n' hugs

Angela said...

Absolutely!! We have produced the sort of society where it is the norm for mothers are expected to get back to work asap after birth of babies- admittedly often it is to pay the mortgage, but also often it is so they can live more comfortably. "If I didnt go to work, we couldnt have holidays at Disneyland" say some Mums in the playground. No WE should not make a Mum who works fulltime feel guily [I expect she may feel bad anyway without our help] but neither should we patronise the Mum who opts for a simpler, less affluent lifestyle in order to be with her children in their crucial formative years. Looking at the way my lovely kids have turned out, I don't think those years at home with them were 'wasting' my university education, as some 'friends' suggested at the time.
Sarah's point about the way animal rescue centres assess suitable homes is very perceptive.
But hey, I am a middle aged grumpy old[ish] women - we need YOUNGER women like you to be speaking out on this issue.
Keep up the good work

Gumbo Lily said...

If you ask any man or woman at the end of his or her life, "What do you wish you had spent more time on?" I think the answer would be, "On the family, not on the career." We simply HAVE to choose.

We can't blame the emotional and social ills of children on teachers, government, government funding or television. God created the family unit, it's up to us to choose how we will nurture the Gifts He gave us.


Jenny said...

Oh this whole subject just makes me so cross. Last week I had to feel cross all day after listening to a history of the childcare industry in Australia and the insistence that education needs to included in childcare and so it must be professionalised. What better education can there be for little ones wanting to know about their little world than to spend time in their little world with the people who mean more to them than any other people in the world, their family.
How will children know where they fit in or how they fit in if they don't start off in a small world and work their way out into a larger world.

Australia pours mountains of money into the childcare industry, we are now looking at government paid leave for the primary carer not to help families care for their children and build a decent family but to " increase work place attachment" which I can only understand to mean prolong the families income level so that when the paid leave runs out they feel they have no other choice than to return to work.
Most Australian parents move heaven and earth to have one parent stay home with their little babies and the majority of women who return to work do so part time.
"Increased work place attachment" is so obviously code for maintaining attachment to a certain income level rather than than being an attempt to increase family attachment and help families to grow and care for each other. The emphasis always seems to be all about keeping the economy growing rather than growing social capital by nurturing strong families and helping them to have the resources, financially and emotionally, to organise their family the way that best suits the individual family.

I hope this makes sense. I can't think straight when I am cross.

Dulce Domum said...

Hi Sarah
I didn't see the programme, but I knew it was on. The DH is KING of our telly, so I didn't get to watch it though, I may watch on Iplayer tomorrow. I'll probably get a bit wound up.

I think you've hit the nail on the head about the practicalities of having an honest debate. It will always get bogged down by dunderheads and guilty mums.

The trouble is with the dunderheads is that they tend to have incredibly intransigent views on the nature of a woman's place (educationally, politically, economically) which means that what they say is always automatically rejected by reasonable folks, even if some of their points are justifiable. So for example, (and heck, I'm going to name the site!) LAF, often have great, reasonable, well thought out articles on the value of a mother at home, simple family living, children being a blessing, but it is negated by somewhat extreme views on women's right to vote and women's educational opportunities.

Whereas, guilty mums abound! I'm a SAHM but am terribly touchy about criticism in the way I rear my children. So to go about your work and put your kids in childcare and have the weight of evidence against your choices in terms of the well-being of your children, no wonder working mums explode!

You're so right about dogs and children. And it links with your idea of the mum checking her Blackberry whilst in labour. We have a culture of farming out our kids to other women which goes way back to the late 18th century. Think of the rise of the nanny! The rich have never seen the value of maternity...we shall see the children for an hour at 5 o'clock and make sure their little faces are clean, Nanny!...That's why I think the second wave of feminism was very middle class revolution, largely concerned with women's place in academia and the professions. These academics came from a culture of nannies and boarding schools.

Dulce Domum said...

Hi Angela
I have avery passionate views on this subject, yet I don't speak out. Generally, because I do not wish to offend. However, as a woman I feel that we need to be advocates for children, all children. This is how it used to be. Women were strong advocates for family life and used this advocacy to curb the more extreme and damaging aspects of masculine culture (think of the temperance movement and why it started). So we have to find a way to be advocates again, without heaping personal insult on women who may simply not have been educated as to her options and (ouch, dare I say it) responsibilities.

Hi Jody
You're dead right. It is a choice. "Having it all" is a terribly damamging myth . No doubt there are women who work with skill and passion in brain surgery or astro-physics and come home to be perfect wives and mothers. But these women are few and far between. Most women have average gifts and the kind of killer maternal instinct which makes a joke of the slogon "biology is not destiny"....Oh, on another note, why is the "dream" always so bloody middle class?

Hi Jenny
Australia and the UK are alike. The needs of the economy and the needs of the nation's children are at odds, moreover the government is constantly prioritising the needs of the economy, in its inimitable, short-sighted fashion. Our children are not growing up into well-adjusted, good citizens. They may not be able to bring up the next generation effectively, keep a job, curb their spending, take care of themselves. There have been many cases in the news just recently involving the terrible abuse of young children by mothers and their partners. These are extreme, but they somehow smack of the current culture. In one instance a mother organised the abduction of her little girl by a family friend (and known p***dophile) in order to extract money out of the public. However, holistically, it's the small tell-tale signs of discontent amongst our children that matter. The drug and alcohol absue, sexual activity at a young age, the general feeling of being unable to cope, of being unloved. Oliver James has been linking modern parenting methods with the work of John Bowlby and found that they way we parent affects the brain development of young children and can cause mental health problems as the child ages. I encourage you to look at his web page.

Anonymous said...

A woman who was one of the founders of Spare Rib made an interesting observation, she had rather softened on the idea of women reducing working hours for the sake of children. When they wrote Spare Rib they never considered the implications because they didn't have children at the time. Now she'd had children she understood and sympathised with working mothers' concerns.

I remember saying to a relative whilst I was pregnant with my first, that I trusted them to discipline my children in whatever way they saw fit. The second my baby was born I vowed that if anyone so much as shouted at my tiny treasure by gum I'd 'ave 'em!! We just don't understand mother love until we are a mother.

So it shocks me when women (such as Mrs very rich with a Blackberry) can so be so happy to push baby out and then almost immediately return to work. Perhaps she squashes the guilt, perhaps she doesn't feel it. She did say that she grew up in relative poverty and vowed her children would never have to suffer that indignity. Plus she did leave her children with her mother so they did have continuity of care with a someone the children are likely to continue a relationship with when they are older.

It's a complicated situation. I think that even if the government were to provide better incentives for at least one parent to stay home for the formative years that some women (and men) would refuse despite studies showing the disadvantage to children. The benefits though to families who have to both work long hours (i.e. those in the low income bracket and single parents) they need the most help in order to keep one parent at home - but as you say the government's main priority is to get everyone out to work and the incentives to low earners is subsidised childcare - why not pay the Mum/Dad the same amount they would pay for childcare to stay home? But I suppose really they are just giving the parents some tax back and it's not just a freebie.

I dunno. It's all very complicated.

I have some friends who have two children and live off £16,000 a year (just above the 'low income' bracket which means they receive no government help). They manage, just, with help from family and church. This is something I believe that families and church should really get involved in. Government is all about the money and tax revenue and all that hash. But the church and the family have a duty of care for children I believe. However, not everyone goes to church and not everyone has a family they can turn to though.

Thinking out loud in type here! :)

At the end of the day, each family must make a decision. There needs to be clear, undoctored research well publicised to show that children really need their Mums, Dads and if possible Grandmas and Granddads to be around. To love, to care, to give them emotional security (which is what most research seems to show). And as Jody reiterated, when we are older what will we care the most about? Our career or our children? If we say our career then to be honest should we really have had children? If we say our children and we concentrated on our career to the detriment of our children's life then we will have a lot of regrets.

As some chappie said, we are living through the biggest child raising experiment in history. The results so far are worrying.


Dulce Domum said...

So much to think about on this one, isn't there, dudette?

I noticed you'd blogged about it too. shall give my furhter throughts on your own blog.

Zillah said...

So when you say "as I soon will join that band of sisters", are you to return to the life of an honest contributor to the government's coffers?

Nice piece, btw!


Dulce Domum said...

Hi Zillah
I may have to go back into teaching after the Christmas holidays, and I may have to do a couple of weeks supply next term. It may not happen, but then again it may. I'm using "may" quite a lot here aren't I, this is because I'm afraid of definites right now!