Detoxing Childhood: poisonous ‘advice’

In the follow-up to Toxic Childhood, Sue Palmer peddles the same fears and prejudices of incompetent parents and damaged children.

Alka Sehgal

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Sue Palmer’s Toxic Childhood: How the Modern World is Damaging Our Children and What We Can Do About It, published in 2006, was broadly held up as a great insight into the state of childhood today. At a recent event to promote her latest book, Detoxing Childhood: What Parents Need to Know to Raise Happy, Successful Children, Palmer, who is a writer, broadcaster and education consultant, revealed that ‘detoxing childhood’ would really mean detoxing adults. The picture she paints is one of parents, well-meaning or otherwise, just too incompetent to bring up their children in a safe and proper manner. Apparently what parents need is the advice of self-styled experts such as Palmer.

According to Palmer, children’s development is under threat from three areas of change in the modern world: the increasing isolation of families, the rapid development of technology and the rise of competitive consumerism. The negative consequences of these factors dovetail together, damaging children in various ways. Children are less able to play co-operatively; their ability to sustain attention in activities requiring patience, such as reading, is impaired; and children and adults are encouraged into a mindset of destructive rivalry by aggressive advertising aimed at ever younger audiences.

It is true that neighbourhoods have changed and maybe people do live in a more isolated environment, without the kind of support and help that may have been offered by extended families in the past. It may also be true that more children live in one-parent households. But why is it automatically assumed that these changes must necessarily be damaging for children and for family life? One of my parents’ main motives for emigrating to England from India was to escape the confines of close-knit family and community life. For them, at that time in their lives, anonymity and distance from their families offered them a freedom to live their lives and choose friends on their own terms. Moreover, changes outside our immediate control will always happen – surely it is the way we deal with such events that will have a bigger impact on our children?

Palmer’s second bugbear is too much technology, too soon. According to Palmer, we adults may be able to cope with new technology and even enjoy the benefits. But when it comes to children she paints a nightmare scenario of kids wrapped up in their own on-screen worlds, unwilling or unable to communicate with anyone else. For Palmer, the high speed of computer games and television programmes results in children being far less patient, lacking the ability to appreciate that activities like reading or cooking require time. Children – impatient? Who’d have thought! Palmer seems to fantasise about a return to a golden age where children sat patiently round the family dinner table or quietly waited for cakes to rise.

Personally, I’m not at all convinced that children read less today. Just consider the rise of children’s publishing, children’s book clubs and so on. If children really are more inattentive in class today, that may be more a consequence of changes wrought in education more generally than of children’s increasing access to new technology. Due to the imposition of bureaucratic targets in education, teachers have less time and autonomy to establish the relationships and environment necessary to teach certain skills at optimal stages of children’s development. Add to this the way the curriculum is continually amended to include an increasing amount of moralising platitudes, such as compulsory classroom discussions on healthy eating and obesity, then it’s no wonder children are inclined to switch off. These cack-handed interventions into the classroom are unlikely to inspire the inquisitive imagination of children.

As for mealtime conversations en famille, again, the reality belies the simplistic picture Palmer paints. Eating together is no guarantee of joy and harmony – it can be rather tortuous times for some children and parents. Even seemingly blissful meals with extended family and friends in Italian olive oil advert-like settings cannot guarantee that a young child won’t be itching to be off and away into his or her own world.

And not eating together is not in itself a recipe for rearing dysfunctional children. Most people probably do eat together when they can. There is the popular urban myth of those feral children who cannot use cutlery at the age of six, but I suspect this is based less on reality than it is a projection of our own insecurities and prejudices. If there is the odd child who really cannot use cutlery, surely someone can teach him or her. Do we really need to see isolated examples such as this as a premonition of social chaos to come?

A prominent contention in Detoxing Childhood is that we are all far more individualised than in the past; we mistrust and fear other people more. I wouldn’t disagree with her description, but I do take issue with Palmer blaming this trend on the effects of ‘competitive consumption’. In short, Palmer argues that television and other media bombard us, and children, with ads that make us want more and more to get one up on everyone else. I was amazed at such a simplistic view of both the media and the public. In media effects theory, the injection model of people passively absorbing whatever advertisers tell us – and become short-fused rivals as a consequence – has long been discredited.

Any cursory observation of children would show that they are quite capable of playing for hours on the computer or watching television by themselves, asking pertinent, as well as daft, questions about the world, and then meeting up with friends to play games based on shared experiences of playing similar computer games or watching the same programmes.

Having accused most people of being uninterested in anyone else than themselves because they are too busy being competitive and consuming, I wonder if Palmer has given a thought to the large percentage of the world who are unable to consume much at all? And for whom technological development is painfully slow?

Palmer would probably refute the accusation of being a technophobe and she is vociferous in condemning government intervention into teaching or parenting. She is a big supporter of people getting together informally to solve problems – as long as we accept her definitions of what constitutes ‘a problem’.

She advocates, for example, mums getting together to discuss banning Bratz dolls and protecting children from peer pressure. I suspect she would not endorse mums getting together to feed burgers or chips to their children. Personally, I would be more concerned about what message a group of adults taking Bratz so seriously gives to children. If Palmer does not want young girls to play with Bratz, wear mini skirts and crop tops, why can’t she just say so as a matter of her opinion (or prejudice)? Does she assume that a mother is (or should be) so insecure, so unable to cope with a tantrum, that she can only do this if all the other well-informed mums support her in her private choice and join her in condemning those who disagree? It would seem so. And herein lies a far more deep-seated problem.

In as much as there is growing recognition that trying to create a totally risk-free environment may hamper or delay children’s ability to develop their own skills in recognising and dealing with potentially harmful situations, it is hard to see how Palmer’s analysis and proposed remedies will help. Palmer underestimates children’s resilience and adaptability and she overestimates the potential of adults to irrevocably harm them, intentionally or not, in the early years of life.

Adults, especially those who deal with children, have been undermined to the point where parents are seen as in need of advice on every aspect of child rearing. For example, even as basic an activity as watching television with your child now requires expert intervention. (Palmer suggests playing games with children such as ‘spot the advert’ – can you imagine the look of pity on your child’s face?). We do not need to turn watching television together with our children into a media studies class, and leaving children unsupervised in front of the telly will not result in them becoming passive blobs. Palmer’s assertions on such matters sometimes border on the hysterical.

The kind of catch-all ‘advice’ from Palmer is not only pointless and counterproductive – another thing for parents to add to their checklist of dos and don’ts – it is also pernicious. It is clear that her fears for children are really just that: her fears – but in her books, they are projected onto the masses. The appeal of her ideas lies less in their veracity but more in the way they fuel a contemporary climate amongst parents where we are encouraged to feel more confident through judgement and condemnation of those who don’t conform. This divisive outlook is truly poisonous.

Alka Sehgal is a former secondary school teacher and lecturer (and mother of two).

Detoxing Childhood: What Parents Need to Know to Raise Happy, Successful Children by Sue Palmer is published by Orion. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

Julian Grenier wondered why commentators who praised Sue Palmer’s Toxic Childhood didn’t spot its poisonous arguments about the working-class. Helene Guldberg said the view that the modern world damages our children reinforced a culture where childhood comes with a health warning. She said a plethora of books are peddling a similar childish panic. In her monthly guide to subversive parenting, Jennie Bristow sends today’s parenting fads and panics to the naughty step. 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.

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