A childish panic about the next generation

Many of those fretting over the state of contemporary childhood, concerned that kids are passive, cooped up and sedentary, are motivated by naked nostalgia - sometimes even by snobbery.

Helene Guldberg

Topics Books

Children are cooped up inside, passive and apathetic and unable to create their own fun and entertainment. Their imagination is dulled by too many hours of watching television and playing sedentary computer games. They are corrupted by commerce and advertising, tormented by bullies, and traumatised by testing. Or so we are told – over and over again.

A plethora of recent books has set out to show that the modern world is damaging our children. The authors are allowing their rather romanticised view of, and nostalgia for, their own childhoods to influence their inquiry into how children’s lives have changed in recent times. It also seems that some of their concerns are shaped by a distinct unease about modern living and a disdain for affluence – even, in some cases, by a snobbish haughtiness towards ignorant ‘materialistic’ parents.

Sue Palmer’s Toxic Childhood: How the Modern World is Damaging Our Children and What We Can Do About It argues that it is not only junk food that is allegedly poisoning our children; so is ‘junk culture’. ‘A toxic cocktail of the side-effects of cultural change is now damaging the social, emotional and cognitive development of a growing number of children, with knock-on effects on their behaviour’, she claims.

In The Power of Play: How Imaginative, Spontaneous Activities Lead to Healthier and Happier Children, David Elkind writes: ‘Children’s play – their inborn disposition for curiosity, imagination and fantasy – is being silenced in the high-tech, commercialised world we have created’. The power of play is being destroyed by ‘inexpensive toys available in enormous quantities and seemingly unlimited variety’, ‘sedentary screen play’, and ‘increasingly test-driven curricula’, Elkind argues.

In The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids, Madeline Levine tells us that the US is facing an epidemic of depression, anxiety and substance abuse among children and young people. And this is happening not only among the disadvantaged, but in affluent families, too.

Not only are levels of mental illness and drug-abuse rocketing – apparently kids are also suffering from something called ‘nature-deficit disorder’. In Last Child In The Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder, Richard Louv argues that children are ‘suffering a deficit in primary experiences – that which we can see, feel, taste, hear and smell for ourselves’. He writes: ‘Modern life narrows our senses until our focus is mostly visual, appropriate to about the dimension of a computer monitor or TV screen’.

Journalist Libby Brooks provides a fitting description of society’s gloomy view of children’s lives in The Story of Childhood: Growing Up In Modern Britain. ‘Over the past three decades, worries about children’s wellbeing have been amplified to an excruciating pitch’, she writes. ‘Childhood has become the crucible into which is ground each and every adult anxiety – about sex, consumerism, technology, safety, achievement, respect, the proper shape of life. This is a time of child-panic.’

Unfortunately, Brooks herself then contributes to this panic by exaggerating the dangers of bullying. ‘Despite anxieties about stranger danger and unsafe streets’, she writes, ‘it’s children’s peers from whom they require most protection, in the relentlessly familiar environment of the playground. We ask of children what few adults would tolerate: to endure hours of enforced proximity to their tormentors.’

In the round, it seems it is pretty awful to be a child today. But how seriously should we take this panicked literature about the state of childhood?

Nasty little brutes

Many of the problems thrown into the pot when discussing the state of contemporary childhood are not issues we should be obsessing about. Take bullying. There are, of course, tragically sad cases of children being tormented by bullies and some have even ended up taking their own lives. Yet debilitating bullying is thankfully very rare. Where it occurs, it should be dealt with by adults in a sensitive, but firm, manner.

Today, however, we are led to believe that we face an epidemic of bullying. And behind many of the anti-bullying campaigns lies an unhealthy disdain for children: these campaigns tend to present a substantial proportion of children as nasty little brutes who are out to destroy other kids’ lives.

Children can of course be excessively selfish. They are often thoughtless and unsophisticated. But they can also be utterly charming in their naivety. That is because they are learning how to become social beings – beings with a sense of belonging, who trust in, learn from and share with other people. It is precisely for this reason that they need to be given the opportunity to create and resolve their own conflicts. Unless children are given the opportunity to engage with each other without adults constantly hovering over them, they won’t really learn the consequences of being nasty and thoughtless. And neither will they learn how to cope with spiteful and hurtful behaviour.

What about the concept of nature-deficit disorder? Are those children who live in an urbanised environment losing out on something? As someone who spent most waking hours of my early childhood playing outdoors – catching grasshoppers with my bare hands, climbing trees, building dens and exploring the woods – I appreciate how nature’s many wonders can capture a child’s imagination. A childhood friend recently shared with me a vivid memory from our childhoods, when, aged around six, I was walking down a path, bucket in hand, looking absolutely delighted: I had collected a bucketful of slugs that I was going to keep as pets in our back garden. But much to my horror, the next day I woke to find nothing but disgusting slime on the stone where I had placed the slugs.

But children who grow up in cities – and maybe never get the chance to climb trees or go out in search of slugs – do not suffer from a disorder of any kind. Children can have hours of fun on street corners, in back gardens or in local parks – kicking a ball around, scrambling to the top of climbing-frames, playfighting with their mates, and just messing around.

Is ‘consumer culture’ really restricting children’s imaginations? It is true that some children have more toys than they know what to do with. I have lost count of how many dolls my four-year-old niece has acquired. And no matter how expensive and amazing her last doll is, her appetite for further acquisitions seems unsatisfiable. But she can recite the names of – and tell a story about – each and every one of the dolls. Her imagination and curiosity have not been stifled by her relative affluence, despite maybe getting as many toys for one birthday as I got throughout my entire childhood. She can have hours of fun engrossed in her own little fantasy world, just like we could at her age.

Also, screen-based entertainment should not be seen as a problem in itself. As Wendy Earle has argued elsewhere on spiked, research indicates that young people use new technology to do what they have always done – socialise, mess around and play games with each other. I have never seen the appeal of computer games myself, but by all accounts they can be fun, challenging, and, at times, educational. If children are spending too many hours on this type of ‘sedentary screen play’, maybe we should ask ourselves why that is. Perhaps new technologies are attractive to kids because they provide them with the opportunity to mess around with their friends – something they rarely get the chance to do outdoors because of our overprotective culture.

It is time to take a more critical look at today’s doom-mongering about children. Interpretations of social, economic and lifestyle changes, and their effect on children’s lives, are easily clouded by the researchers’ own experiences, outlooks and feelings. I know I often fall into the trap myself of romanticising my own childhood. But we should at least try to look at societal changes a little more objectively. Rather than pointing the finger at easy ‘junk’ targets and labelling children as fragile and easily damaged, we need to try to identify what the real problems are – if there are any.

Yesteryear’s tough childhood

In many ways children’s lives have improved immensely over the years. In fact, only a few hundred years ago children could not even be said to have a childhood. The French historian Philippe Aries showed in the classic Centuries of Childhood that the idea of childhood simply did not exist in medieval society. ‘As soon as the child could live without the constant solicitude of his mother, his nanny or his cradle-rocker, he belonged to adult society’, Aries wrote.

At the tender age of seven, young people were expected to enter the adult world – where they acted, and were treated, as smaller versions of other adults. Infants under two were treated with emotional indifference, according to Aries, mainly because of the low chance of them surviving to see their second birthday. In the seventeenth century the modern view of childhood first emerged, but it was not until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with the advent and extension of compulsory schooling and a corresponding decline in child labour, that childhood really existed in the modern sense.

Aries has been criticised for taking some of the evidence he drew upon – particularly from historic portraits and paintings – out of context and exaggerating his point. But whether or not childhood could be said to exist in the past, and whether or not we can say that parents of the past loved their children, today’s separation of a distinct world with its own clothes, games, entertainment and education is undoubtedly new. Over the past hundred years or so the family has become increasingly focused emotionally and financially on the welfare of the child in ways that would have been unrecognisable to people in previous centuries.

Prior to the twentieth century children did not have the same prolonged period of freedom from responsibility. Even in the nineteenth century, children as young as six would have to work long hours – longer than many adults would put up with today – in atrocious working conditions. They often contracted debilitating diseases and suffered terrible injuries. Accidental amputations were common in factories, when children, who were small enough to reach into the factory machinery, would attempt to clean the parts or clear obstructions. Young chimney sweeps suffered from chronic breathing problems and often broken and deformed limbs.

The fact that most children today, in the developed world anyway, do not have to work for a living, and have some freedom to play, mess about and receive an extended education, should be celebrated. But a question we do need to ask ourselves is whether society may have moved too far down the road of what Frank Furedi, author of Paranoid Parenting, calls the ‘infantilisation of children’.

Children need to be given the chance to grow up. That means giving them gradually more freedom and responsibility. It is the responsibility of adults to prepare children for a full and independent life, not to protect them from every conceivable risk in the wider world. Michael Ungar, an American social worker and family therapist and the author of Too Safe For Their Own Good: How Risk And Responsibility Helps Teens Thrive, recounts a dinner-party conversation about how children’s lives have changed: ‘Most of us could tell stories about the risks we were routinely exposed to that we would never expose our own children to. We were put out in the morning and told not to come back until lunch. We were allowed to ride motorcycles unsupervised at age twelve. We walked alone to school.’

Ungar argues that we can best help children by providing them with opportunities to show what they can do on their own. Parents should give children the structure ‘to navigate safely the period between being a child and acting like an adult’, he writes. ‘It’s our responsibility from the time they are little to help them embrace adventure and responsibility… A concerned parent provides scaffolding for growth, not just a lifejacket for safety.’

Peter Stearn, author of Anxious Parents: A History Of Modern Childrearing In America, is also concerned about the extent to which we try to keep children safe. ‘Almost all historians of contemporary childhood, and many other experts from other disciplines, agree that we have come to underestimate the capacity of children, in regulating and monitoring them beyond reasonable and productive levels’, he writes. Stearn told me that we encourage young people – even in their late teens or early twenties – continually to wait for parental guidance and not to take enough initiative and responsibility. ‘In my view’, he says, ‘parents, encouraged by experts, have come to regard kids as excessively fragile’. Parents feel more and more strongly that kids need protection rather than being allowed to roam freely. As a result, he says, ‘some kids never really manage to cut the psychological apron strings’.

Similarly, Elkind argues that we should not try to make play risk-free ‘because we learn through experience and we learn through bad experiences. Through failure we learn how to cope.’ Elkind shows that over the past decades children in the US have lost 12 hours of free time a week, including eight hours of unstructured play and outdoor activities. In contrast, the amount of time children spend in organised sports has doubled. He writes: ‘Children are not allowed to play on their own to the extent that they once were. And much of the play they engage with is organised and run by adults. This robs children of the opportunity to innovate and learn from risk-taking behaviours. To be sure, children today still manage to play on their own, but it is now the exception and not the rule.’

Bill Bryson’s The Life And Times Of The Thunderbolt Kid: Travels Through My Childhood provides a vivid description of childhood in 1950s America and shows just how much it differs from today.

‘Kids were always outdoors – I knew kids who were pushed out the backdoor at eight in the morning and not allowed back in until five unless they were on fire or actively bleeding – and they were always looking for something to do’, Bryson writes. ‘If you stood on any corner with a bike – any corner anywhere – over a hundred children, many of whom you had never seen before, would appear and ask you where you were going… Life in Kid World, wherever you went, was unsupervised, unregulated and robustly – at times insanely – physical, and yet it was a remarkably peaceful place.’

The importance of freedom to play

It is this freedom to play away from adult supervision that children today are missing out on. The late Swiss child development expert, Jean Piaget, spent hours observing children at play. He concluded that children’s minds develop through interacting – and getting into disagreements – with their peers. Through being confronted with other children’s points of view they are encouraged for the first time to start thinking about thoughts.

In his seminal The Language and Thought of the Child, Piaget illustrates the role of egocentrism – that is, the inability to see the world from any perspective other than one’s own – in children’s thinking. Although Piaget claimed that children were fundamentally egocentric until around seven years of age, it is now widely accepted that by four years of age most children have started to comprehend that other people can have beliefs that differ from their own.

As part of the research for my PhD on child development, I carried out a test – referred to as a Theory of Mind test – on children between three and four years of age in a primary school in Manchester. I presented the children (one of whom I shall call Mark) with a tube of Smarties. When I asked Mark what he thought was inside the tube his face lit up – ‘Smarties!’, he exclaimed. I handed him the tube and asked him to look inside. His face quickly fell when he realised that what was inside was not Smarties, but crayons. I told Mark that after he had gone back to the classroom one of his classmates, Mary, would come into the room. ‘I will show Mary this tube and ask her what she thinks is inside. What do you think she’ll say?’ I asked Mark. As most children under four years of age would have done, Mark said ‘crayons’. He knew – after having looked inside – that the tube of Smarties actually contained crayons, so of course Mary would say it contained crayons, too. When I asked him what he thought was inside the tube before he opened it, he again said ‘crayons’. He could not contemplate that thoughts can be different from reality. Or, more precisely, he was not able to think about thought – thoughts and reality are one and the same thing to young children.

Piaget viewed particular social experiences – relationships between equals – as central to a child’s ability to overcome egocentrism in their thinking. Relationships between peers bring out differences of viewpoints and this helps children in developing an ability to think about thoughts. Piaget wrote that ‘social life is necessary if the individual is to become conscious of the functioning of his own mind… Just as, if left to himself, the child believes every idea that enters his head instead of regarding it as a hypothesis to be verified, so the child…believes without question everything he is told [by adults].’ To a child, what adults say has a sort of mystical power, Piaget argued. Play between equals is therefore necessary in order to socialise the child – that is, to succeed in ‘delivering him from the mystical power of the word of the adult’.

Lev Semenovich Vygotsky, the eminent Russian developmental psychologist, also recognised the role of play in children’s development. He described children’s play as both liberating and constraining. Pre-school children are ‘free’ to explore new roles in play, but, as roleplaying with their peers has to be a co-operative activity, they need to exhibit an unprecedented level of self-control. In the groundbreaking book Mind And Society: The Development Of Higher Psychological Processes, Vygotsky wrote: ‘In play the child is always higher than his average age, higher than his usual everyday behaviour; he is in play as if a head above himself.’

Vygotsky developed the concept of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) to illustrate how children learn and develop. It is a concept that has become hugely popular in education circles, most often used to bolster the fashionable idea of ‘child-centred learning’, but in the process it has been stripped of its core meaning. Behind many of the newfound education fads – such as ‘personalised learning’ – lies the belief that we should accept the limitations of children’s thinking or not push them beyond what they are capable of achieving in the here and now. But this is anathema to the spirit of the ZPD, which Vygotsky defined as: ‘The distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers.’

In other words, the basis for development is overcoming the contradiction between the demands of a particular situation – forcing the individual to undertake new forms of behaviour – and the inadequacies of the individual’s existing forms of thought to cope with the task at hand. Play can create such a ZPD for the child. Vygotsky argued that ‘a child’s greatest achievements are possible in play, achievements that tomorrow will become her basic level of real action and morality.’

Entering a shop with my husband one rainy day he gave me a look of absolute horror on hearing the agonising wails of a toddler in a buggy in front of us. One could be forgiven for thinking the boy was being slowly tortured. In fact, he was just being denied the bar of chocolate he wanted. It is quite incredible what tantrums three-year-olds are able to throw when they do not immediately get what they want. As Vygotsky perceptibly wrote: ‘No one has met a child under three years old who wants to do something a few days in the future.’ Luckily, young children can be distracted from what they want – and the younger the child, the easier that is. But as children get older, and this is where play comes into it, and cannot so easily be distracted from their immediate desires, make-believe situations serve the function of in some way satisfying those unrealised desires. To the young child, the adult world is full of obstacles and restrictions, and play gives them the chance to escape those barriers.

Putting children on the road to adulthood

Outside of play, the behaviour of infants and toddlers is determined by the situation in which they find themselves. Their behaviour, motivations and desires are shaped by their immediate perceptions – that is, by what they see and hear at any given moment. But in imaginary play, children for the first time are able to separate meanings from objects or actions. To a young child, words and objects, or words and actions for that matter, are not separate entities but are one and the same thing. As adults, we know that ‘cup’ is a word for a utensil one drinks out of. But to a young child ‘cup’ is a cup. The word is the object. The child cannot think about words in the abstract, as separate from the object, but can only think about the things the words represent.

However, in play a child spontaneously starts to separate meanings from objects – without knowing that he or she is doing so, it must be added. It is only when children start to learn to write that they consciously appreciate that there are such things as words that represent – but are also separate from – things. Play can therefore be seen, Vygotsky argued, as a preparatory stage in the development of children’s written language.

Unfortunately, many recent books unhelpfully counterpoise the educational value of play to the regimented nature of schooling, in particular testing. But, going back to Vygotsky’s ZPD, like play, adults can, through instruction and guidance, propel children beyond what they are capable of in the here and now. Play is important, but so is adult-directed teaching and learning. New Labour’s target-driven approach to education is indeed anathema to creative teaching, but that does not mean that academics and testing per se are a problem. A good teacher, according to Vygotsky, should expect more of the child than they are capable of without adult guidance.

It is true that the lives of most children today are very different from those of, for example, Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and friends, with their many adventures – including getting lost in caves or playing pirates on the Mississippi river. But the changes we have seen in children’s lives over the last century, or even decade, are far from all for the worse. The key thing that could be holding children back today is the safety-obsessed culture and low expectations of what children are capable of. We need to argue for children being given more freedom to play and mess around. But let’s not use that as an excuse to undermine the need for a formal education.

Helene Guldberg is working on a book for Vision Paperbacks on children’s lives – exploring what’s changed and how these changes shape children’s development. If you have any insights, references or anecdotes you would like to share with Helene, please email her at {encode=”” title=””}.

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Topics Books


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