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So was it really better in the old days for British children?

2007 February 15
by Paul Vallely

So was it really better in the old days for British children?

Why are we asking this question now?

Because a report by Unicef says that Britain is the worst place out of 21 western states to be a child, according to indices of education, health, sexual behaviour and drug-taking. The Netherlands is the best place, the well-being table says, with the bottom two places occupied by the United States and, wearing the dunce’s cap, the United Kingdom.

How sound is that verdict?

That’s a good question, which is more than can be said for many of the ones asked by the report. Many of its judgements were highly subjective. It measured such things as what children thought about whether their peers were “kind and helpful”, whether they were “satisfied” with their health, and how they rated their own mental health – not an area in which Kevin the Teenager’s self-pitying self- referential views are normally taken very seriously. How sensible are international comparisons between the “feelings” of a Latvian schoolgirl and one from Leeds? It is a minefield of subjective definitions and cultural differences.

But aren’t things worse now than in the golden age of childhood?

When exactly was that? The cult of childhood dates back to the Victorian era. Then was born the Wordsworthian myth that childhood offers the happiest days of your life. But the Victorians saw kids as mini-adults. Educationists such as Matthew Arnold thought it a sin not to speed the transition from childhood to adulthood. And paradoxically the age of the Industrial Revolution pushed boy- sweeps up chimneys and condemned increased numbers to child labour in factories.

Or maybe it was during the Second World War when bomb-sites were adventure playgrounds and the orchards offered opportunities for scrumping apples. Even if rationing made things tough, people made do – though there was still TB, polio and other pre-vaccination childhood killer diseases, and lots of families still had an outside lavatory.

Or was it the 1950s when Lego was invented and everyone still ate Spangles – the Start-rite idyll (as worn by the Prince of Wales and his sister, the Princess Royal) though, of course, that was when the commercialisation of childhood first set in with the first baby- boomer fad – the Davy Crockett coonskin cap, introduced in 1955, and Disney took to the TV airwaves with the forerunner of modern infomercials bringing the first “tie-in” products with comics, sweets and toys associated with Mickey Mouse. I could go on. The golden age of childhood is whenever you were a child. For E Nesbitt read Enid Blyton read JK Rowling; only the form changes, the substance remains the same.

But there must be objective measures?

Think so? Consider the hugely varied responses to the UN report. Everyone sees in it confirmation of their pre-existing world-view. It was an indictment of our dog-eat-dog society. It showed how the furious pace of technical and cultural change is accelerating childhood depression and behavioural problems. It confirmed how rubbish New Labour has been on eradicating poverty. It is the result of market forces pushing children to act, dress and consume like adults – “kidults”. It is the fault of junk food, computers, and the paedophiles lurking round every corner. Pick your prejudice, you can find the evidence here.

‘Twas ever thus. As Steven Mintz, the author of Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood reminds us, the best-seller in 1955 was Why Johnny Can’t Read, which announced that “3,500 years of civilisation” were being lost due to bad schools and incompetent teachers.

So in what ways were things better before?

Children went out to play, they explored, they built dens, they climbed trees. They had knives and airguns and played with matches. The family was not so fragmented. Today the UK has the second- highest number of children living in single-parent or step-parent families. And, since there is a well-established link between family breakdown, educational failure, poor health and reduced life chances, the UK does worse than traditional Catholic countries, such as Italy and Poland, which enjoy the most stable families. The UK has also banished more of its grandparents (who traditionally brought up children) to old people’s homes – leaving the kids dumped in front of televisions or video games dominated by aggression, bad language and drugs, while their parents work longer and longer hours. If they are not languishing on the dole. A frightening 30 per cent of young people in the survey said they expected to end up in unskilled work – yet even is unlikely to be met in a globalis-ing economy that has spelt the end of much unskilled and semiskilled work in modern Britain.

In what ways are things better now?

Infant and child mortality were four times as high at the end of the 1950s than they are today. Polio alone claimed the lives of thousands of children annually in the richest nations. In the US two- thirds of black children lived in poverty in 1955; today that figure is one-third. In Britain the number of children in poverty has halved under New Labour. Mobile phones, the internet and televisions in bedrooms can reduce human interaction among young people – but they can also increase it, in different ways to those which formed social bonds for their parents. New technologies have always frightened parents as much as they have appealed to their children. The loss of innocence can also be loss of ignorance. Technology helps kids understand more about the world in which they live. For most children, life today still holds far more opportunities than it does threats.

So where does the balance lie?

Not between the past and the present, nor even the present and the future. But between technology versus time, wealth versus happiness. There is no strong link between child well-being and per- capita GDP, the report says. Tell us something new.

But try this for a test. In one of the classics of children’s literature, The Railway Children, published in 1906, three children are forced to downsize from the middle-classes suburbs and go and live with their mother in genteel poverty in the countryside after their father is unjustly imprisoned. At the end of the book their falsely incarcerated father returns and the eldest child, Bobbie, races towards her long-lost father with the words “Oh my daddy, my daddy!” The child’s scream goes like a knife into the heart of everyone in the train.

If it does not go into yours then your search for the golden age of childhood may be in vain. Children will remain mere miniatures who eat nothing but sausages and crisps.

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