A toxic view of working-class parents

Commentators heaped praise on Sue Palmer's Toxic Childhood. Didn't they spot its poisonous arguments about a 'dead-eyed', over-breeding underclass?

Julian Grenier

Topics Books

I put off reading Sue Palmer’s Toxic Childhood: How the Modern World is Damaging Our Children and What We Can Do About It for as long as I could. But the book, which was held up as a great insight into the state of childhood today by numerous public figures, just kept on coming up.

First published in 2006, the book got good reviews everywhere. And there was that letter to the government, published in the Daily Telegraph and signed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and a hundred or so others who agree that so-called junk culture is ‘poisoning our children’. Indeed, Palmer could hardly have found a finer club of supporters; it included former children’s laureate Anne Fine and Marion Dowling, president of the British Association of Early Childhood Education.

I was mainly put off by the book because the title bothered me. Where did this idea come from, that we’re all being poisoned? The book seems to issue a challenge; first you de-toxed your diet, now it’s time to de-tox your children. And once the kids are de-toxed, you still won’t be able to take it easy because you’ll also have to de-tox your home (the Wi-Fi is scrambling your brains, in case you didn’t know). I even heard the keynote speaker at a leading early years conference a few years ago telling everyone to get their houses rewired to avoid damaging their children with electrical currents running beneath their bedrooms. Strangely, all those concerned with such dangers neglect to mention any of the real cases of toxicity today. To take just one example, the thousands of children in the developing world poisoned by the use of glycol to sweeten counterfeit medicines never even get a mention.

Once I got round to reading the book, I found that it mostly gives perfectly good, straightforward analyses and advice about the state of childhood today. Yet it left me feeling I had been held up somewhere rather unpleasant for a few hours. Underneath all the nice stuff about the importance of good fresh food, outdoor play and parents giving time, love and attention to their children, there is a nasty stench. Do right by your children, the book seems to say, but at the same time beware the savage children of the underclass – the ‘feral’ kids who ‘don’t have children’s faces – they’re pinched and angry with dead eyes’.

So you slip quickly from the spurious notion that there is something called ‘toxic childhood syndrome’ (both ‘toxic’ and ‘syndrome’ have proper medical definitions, but here they are used as pseudo-medical jargon) to some far more familiar ideas. Parent-bashing by teachers, for example: the problems in school today, the argument goes, are basically the fault of an underclass of parents. What else would you expect from them – ‘deprived, uneducated, often scarcely more than children themselves…often junkies, alcoholics, involved in crime’?

This group of parents is seen as a lot of feckless infants. They eat the wrong food, they don’t take their children out on the right trips to broaden their horizons – they don’t even talk properly. There is even a dire warning about the ‘soaring’ birth rate of these have-nots, whilst the ‘educated classes’ fail to reproduce in comparable numbers. The reader is thus softened up for the idea that the state must step in and ‘detoxify other people’s children’ – or else there will be ‘serious civil unrest within a generation’.

Palmer’s language is eloquently nasty. She writes about children in poor neighbourhoods who are ‘huge, heavily-built and lumbering’, and ‘teenage mums devouring taxpayers’ money’. It’s perfectly pitched to upset and even terrify anyone who is trying their best to bring up their children well.

Palmer is more than matched by the teachers she approvingly quotes – but are these teachers always right when they blame everyone else for children’s apparently poor development? If the state of childhood really is as dire as Toxic Childhood makes it out to be, then don’t schools play any part in this? The image of a group of inner-city headteachers sitting around with Palmer telling her that ‘something really awful will happen soon’ makes me think it’s time to get the hysteria under control and get a grip. What hope can anyone hold for children’s education and moral growth in schools if the headteachers are so cynical and brutalised?

This is not to say that Toxic Childhood is without its insights, which come from careful research and are expressed with clarity and verve. I think that Palmer is right to identify one of the fundamental problems with the nature of childhood today: society’s increasing sense of fearfulness about children. Many parents are afraid to set limits and control their children’s behaviour. Most of us are afraid to let our children play outdoors. Neighbours and shopkeepers are afraid to intervene to stop bad behaviour. Palmer captures this hopeless fearfulness well.

But in the end, Toxic Childhood just generates even more fear – fear for one’s own children, laced with terror about other people’s. It addresses the problem that parents aren’t feeling authoritative, and then suggests that this should be remedied by taking away even more of their responsibility and giving it to the state. It addresses the problem of relationships between schools and families, by indulging in the sort of parent-bashing that has always characterised the staffrooms of the worst schools I have worked in or visited.

Rather than putting forward an inspiring vision of childhood, for all children, Toxic Childhood stirs up a fear of the basest kind – that other people’s children are sub-human. Their existence today is nothing more than a prediction of savagery and mindless civil unrest in the future. It is an unashamedly insular book, obsessing over the supposed toxicity of texting, instant messaging and pre-teen fashion, whilst ignoring the genuine mass poisonings experienced every day by poor children around the world.

Anyone who writes about a fast-breeding, barely-human underclass that will cause the collapse of society, and then argues that we need a more interventionist and authoritarian state, is leading us somewhere we’ve already (and only recently) been in western Europe. We need to pause for a moment’s thought.

Julian Grenier is the head of a nursery school and children’s centre in London. Visit his website here.

Buy Toxic Childhood from Amazon(UK)

Previously on spiked

In her montlhy guide to subversive parenting, Jennie Bristow sends today’s parenting fads and panics to the naughty step. Neil Davenport defended lone parents from being persecuted for the the ‘wrong’ kind of love. Nancy McDermott urged that panicked parents needed pacifying. Helene Guldberg lamented that even toddlers are not free from the tyranny of New Labour’s targets. Rob Lyons was sick of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s patronising parent-bashing. Or read more at: spiked issue Parents and kids.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Books


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