Archive for the ‘Children’ Category
My colleague, Cristina Odone, wrote last week in defence of smacking. Citing a new study, she argued that corporal punishment could be justified, so long as the general context is loving. Now, I’m not casting aspersions over Cristina’s parenting style. But in my view, smacking is never OK.
It is not my intention in this instance to contest the argument on the grounds of scientific research. Studies go every which way; one can always dig up conflicting studies and argue about them, and experts do this all the time. And I’m no expert. But I do have three children. Without denigrating the scientific method, here I would like to speak as a parent.
Smacking may work for some people, and good luck to them if this is the case. But to me, it has always seemed very wrong. Stop me if I have been blessed with children who are especially well behaved, but I have never – never – encountered a situation where smacking would have produced a better solution. Let me emphasise that point: Never.
I have a five-year-old and three-year-old twins. For several months, my wife and I had three children under three. The sleepless nights! The nappies! If that doesn’t make you cringe, I’d wager you’re not a parent. If you are, and you’re still not cringing, I’d wager you had a lot of help. We didn’t.
Was it worth it? Of course. My children are utterly delightful, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. But that doesn’t mean the early period in particular wasn’t hard. My own nadir came when, in the wee small hours of the morning, I became so frenzied with lack of sleep that I punched a hole in a door.
Children can be utterly infuriating – especially when you are tired, or stressed, or (worst of all) hungover – and sometimes you can’t help but let fly. There have been times where, in retrospect, I have told them off too firmly because, to put it simply, I was in a rotten mood. Nobody’s perfect: under stress, it’s easy to lose your sense of perspective and good judgment. At the time, I had convinced myself that the problem was their bad behaviour, not my own state of mind. If I were a smacker, I may have smacked them then, and at the time felt justified in doing so. But, my God, I would have regretted it later. Continue reading on the Telegraph website
Last month, the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayor’s Challenge – an annual American competition to find the boldest “local solutions to national problems” – awarded its $5 million “grand prize” to a rather unusual programme. Run by the city of Providence, Rhode Island, the project aims to teach poor parents how to talk to their babies.
According to the New York Times and other American news outlets, the “Providence Talks” programme will be based on research carried out by two psychologists from the University of Kansas, Betty Hart (who died last year) and Todd R Risley, who in 1995 published their findings in a book called Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children. The results of these studies were striking. After six years of data collection and analysis, they established that while “professional class” children hear on average 2,153 words per hour from their parents, children whose parents were on welfare – the “Precariat”,as the BBC might have described them – hear just 616 (television didn’t count; it was found to have an adverse effect).
Thus, while the wealthier child will be treated to a near-constant stream of cooing commentary, poorer parents tend to limit their interactions with their babies to commands such as “Put away your toy!” and “Don’t eat that!” This meant that by his third birthday, the poorest child will have heard around 30 million fewer words than his middle class counterpart.
The implications, according to Hart and Risley, were striking. The quantity of words to which a child is exposed was found to have a profound impact on its future academic achievements, and even its IQ. Poor boys were found to be the biggest losers, as working-class parents tended to talk more to girls. The psychologists’ conclusion was radical and contentious. If everyone talked to their young children the same amount, “there would be no racial or socioeconomic gap at all”. Continue reading on the Telegraph website
Take a look at the picture on the left. This is a Lego advertisement from the early Eighties, which has recently been circulating online. Beautiful, isn’t it? A cheeky-looking child wearing scruffy child’s clothes, proudly clutching a Lego creation which would resist any attempt at interpretation by an adult. The fact that the child happens to be a girl is neither here nor there.
In case it’s too small to be legible, the first paragraph of copy reads as follows: “Have you ever seen anything like it? not just what she’s made, but how proud it’s made her. It’s a look you’ll see whenever children build something all by themselves. No matter what they’ve created.”
Contrast this with Lego Friends, the new range of Lego aimed specifically at girls, which celebrates its first birthday this year. It features the heavy usage of the colour pink; figures which have been moulded to look more like real women than the traditional, blocky Lego people; a large collection of cars, home interiors and pets; and almost zero opportunity for the imagination to play a role. Every model is so over-styled and prescriptive that it is nigh on impossible to be creative. The words “crying” and “shame” spring to mind.
To bring the contrast into sharper relief, it may be necessary – apologies in advance – to watch the Lego Friends advertisement below. This will likely be the most excruciating 45 seconds of television you will endure this year. (“I just finished decorating my house! Time to chill with the girls at the beauty shop! Emma is styled and ready to go!” “Cupcakes are ready!”) But I implore you: grit your teeth and watch it. Then take another look at the Eighties advertisement at the top of the piece. Where did it all go wrong?
Claire Perry, the Prime Minister’s adviser on childhood, has made the headlines by criticising a “treadmill” culture in which parents pressurise children to achieve. In an interview with the Times, she said that “It’s usually the mother that is orchestrating all of that and doing all the driving. We have created rods for our own back. Children need time to be bored.” She is not wrong. But although this is certainly true of a certain kind of highly aspirational, affluent family, it is far from universal. The most insidious problem lies elsewhere.
Consider the case of Danny Kitchen, the five-year-old boy who ran up a bill for £1,710.43 on his parents’ iPad. Every parent knows how easy it is: children have a magnetic attraction to anything with a screen, and an uncanny way of squirrelling phones and iPads away when you’re back is turned. And they seem to have been hard-wired with all the skills they need to pick up any piece of technology and start playing a game on it. There but for the grace of God, eh, mums and dads?
Maybe. But the question that’s bothering me is the one that nobody seems to be asking. What was a five-year-old doing playing a game called Zombies vs Ninjas in the first place? The fact that this hasn’t raised a single eyebrow is a depressingly accurate sign of the times. While a small demographic of parents may drive their children to breaking point, the majority tend to stick a screen in their hands and tell them to get on with it. This should cause Mrs Perry – and the rest of us – far greater concern. Continue reading on the Telegraph website
I took two of my children to Oxford on Sunday, despite the downpours. We went by rail, which is increasingly becoming a foul experience. Not only are trains unbearably stuffy and stink like a sewer, at any one time there are at least four or five people playing music on their earphones so loud that the rest of the carriage can hear it. Add to this the cacophony of bleeping, burping and comedy ringing that modern mobile phones emit (when their owners haven’t switched them to vibrate) and it was like being trapped in a devilish aviary in a giant rectum.
The train was so packed that the three of us had to share two seats. Just as we settled in for the journey, with books, felt tips and paper, I heard the unmistakable sound of a Disney film starting up. In the seat in front of us, a mother was allowing her daughter to watch a cartoon on a portable DVD player, with the sound on full.
Immediately, I complained. Somebody had to. But, it seemed, nobody else was going to. This is the strange thing: I fear that the culture is changing so that noise pollution is no longer seen as unacceptable. People seem to have lapsed into a state of bovine docility, allowing the noise-fly-tippers to dominate unchallenged. Which sends a shiver down my spine. Either way, once I’d had a go at her, the mother kindly deigned to have her daughter use the headphones which she had in her handbag. And a relative level of calm was restored.
This got me thinking about the recent story from Washington, USA. A family of five went out for an Italian meal at a restaurant called Sogno di Vino, and their children were so well behaved that they were given a discount. This appeared on the itemised receipt as “well behaved kids”. Continue reading on the Telegraph website
Lucy Herd remembers the birth of her son, Jack, in December 2008, as being “magical”. She had endured five miscarriages, and the arrival of her baby filled her with “joy and excitement”. Tragically, however, the happiness she experienced would be short lived. On 27th August 2010, on a “beautiful summer’s day”, she was busy in the kitchen and did not notice Jack wandering off. Minutes later, she found him face down in the garden pond.
Being a full-time mother, Lucy did not have to worry about going back to work immediately after her son’s death. The toddler’s father, however, was entitled to just three days of paid leave, and one of these had to be for the funeral. Any additional time off had to be counted as either sick leave or holiday.
There is currently no legislation dealing with bereavement leave. The closest equivalent is a statement on the Directgov website that “as an employee you’re allowed ‘reasonable’ time off to deal with an emergency involving a dependent. There’s no set amount, but in most cases one or two days should be enough”. In cases of bereavement, this is widely interpreted by employers as between three and five days of leave.
Studies suggest that following the death of a child, between 80 and 90 per cent of relationships break down. Lucy believes that this may be partially due to the fact that parents are not given adequate time to grieve together.
“It can take up to 10 days to organise a funeral,” she says, “and by that time it hasn’t begun to sink in. You can have up to 12 months off to celebrate the birth of a child, but three days off to mourn a child. I think that is wrong.”
So passionately does she feel about this that she has started an e-petition to have the issue debated in Parliament. For this to happen, 100,000 signatures are required. You can view and sign the petition by clicking here. Continue reading on the Telegraph website
When I saw a video on the BBC website entitled “Girl, seven, stuns experts with opera”, I couldn’t help but click on it. The story was as you’d expect: Alma Deutscher, we are told, from Dorking in Surrey, has become an “internet sensation” after composing an opera called The Sweeper of Dreams at the tender age of seven.
The opening sequences feature the little girl playing piano, interspersed with interviews and extracts from her opera. Then the journalist says: “of course, no self-respecting child prodigy would be a virtuoso in just one instrument.” Cut to a shot of Alma playing the violin. She is being accompanied by a slim woman on the piano. The woman turns round and fixes the girl with an intense gaze, as if trying to make Alma play better through the force of willpower alone. You guessed it: this is Alma’s mother.
“At three,” Janie Deutscher recalls rhapsodically, “[Alma] heard a lullaby by Strauss, by Richard Strauss, and she came to us and said, ‘how can music be so beautiful?’ She was struck by the beauty of it.” Continue reading on the Telegraph website
I’m writing this in a café. In front of me and a little to the right sit two mums of around my age, each with a small child. The mums are sitting side-by-side; so too are the children. But while the adults are engaged in lively conversation, the kids have each been given an iPhone to play with, and are sitting there motionless, absorbed in mysterious and silent worlds of their own.
I was born in the final month of 1978. Although I am of a generation that “gets” technology – I have an iPhone, can design websites, and am active on Twitter – the world is a very different place for my children than it was when I was growing up. My wife went to decent private schools, and I went to a state primary in Hackney followed by an appalling “grammar” in north London. Yet our memories of our schooldays include various universals. We played conkers. We had blackboards. We wrote lines. We played with footballs and skipping ropes in the playground.
The familiarity that my generation has with the digital age can prevent us from acknowledging how much childhood has changed. My daughter has just started at our local primary school, and I have been dismayed to learn that conkers, skipping ropes and footballs are banned for reasons of supposed health and safety. Moreover, although the children have the use of a proper field to play in as well as a concrete playground, they are forbidden to climb the trees. This is a far cry from our experience. At my wife’s prep school, the children were issued with boiler suits and sent out into the woods to get climbing.
As society increasingly prevents children from fully engaging with the physical world, the vacuum is inevitably filled with the virtual. My generation experienced the digital revolution when we were in our mid-teens. We were young enough to adapt to it, but old enough to have already developed skills like penmanship, tree climbing, map reading, using a dictionary, debating, memorisation, and a facility for holding a proper conversation. Not so our children. Whereas we take for granted that if our satnav breaks down we will be able to use an A-Z, our children may have never heard of the word “maps” without the word “Google” preceding it. We can still remember how to play conkers; 49 per cent of British children do not even play outside. We have no problem jotting down ideas on paper, but our children’s handwriting is going from bad to worse. People like Philip Hensher argues in his new book, The Missing Ink: The Lost Art Of Handwriting (And Why It Still Matters) that “to diminish the place of the handwritten in our lives is to diminish, in a small but real way, our humanity”. But his view is not shared by society at large, which is in danger of sleepwalking to a state of bovine reliance on the virtual. Parents of my generation tend to take our essential life skills for granted; the value of them for our own children may not become apparent until it is too late. Continue reading on the Telegraph website
Saturday morning. I’m on duty. My three children – a five year-old, and three-year-old twins – announce that they are going to a neighbour’s house to play. We know the neighbour well. As they put on their shoes, I surreptitiously take hold of the Saturday papers and pick up my cup of tea. This, I think, will be a welcome break.
Then something stops me. The neighbour lives only three doors down; the children will be there in seconds. But the face of April Jones has appeared in my mind and isn’t going away. I find myself putting down the papers. Knowing I am acting irrationally, I accompany my children to the door and keep an eye on them until they are safely inside. Even then, my mind is not at rest.
David Cameron does not very often come up with phrases that resonate. When he referred to the abduction of April Jones as “every family’s nightmare”, however, he hit a nerve. The abduction has certainly exaggerated my insecurities about my children. It’s one thing to know that one shouldn’t overreact. It’s quite another to have the self-control to quell the nagging sense of panic.
A friend of ours, however, remains laissez-faire. She has always allowed her children to roam freely outside, and maintains this as a point of principle. “You can do more damage to your children by mollycoddling them,” she says. “Nobody wants to live in a paranoid world, but we’re making the world that way by panicking.” She’s right, of course. But for many of us, the feeling of “what if” is difficult to ignore.
What makes it even harder to strike a judicious balance between free play and safety is that the authorities do not collate data on abductions (as opposed to murder) in any meaningful way. The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP), a department of the Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA), says that there are about 550 child abductions a year. But they do not know how many of these are perpetrated by strangers, and how many by family members or friends. They do not record motives, the sex of the victims, the length of the abduction, or whether it led to a serious crime or not. They do not estimate how many abductions, or attempted abductions, go unreported. This makes it difficult to get a handle on the true risk, and difficult to believe that the police have things under control. Continue reading on the Telegraph website