‘The “evidence” doesn’t stand up to scrutiny’

Helene Guldberg, author of Reclaiming Childhood, tells Jane Sandeman about the instincts that encouraged her to investigate the parenting panic, and why her book has caused such a stir.

Jane Sandeman

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As the convenor of the Institute of Ideas’ Parents Forum, at which we discuss the politics and fears around child-rearing, I make it my mission in life to read as many books on children and parents as I can. Most of the time, it makes for pretty miserable reading.

The outlook of much of the academic and public discussion on parenting can be summarised as follows: Kids in the UK are worse off in all respects than kids in other countries in the developed world, except for the US; and it is all because of reckless, feckless parents, who show little real interest in their children and lack the basic skills for bringing them up. The conclusion is always that children should be taken in hand by ‘those who know best’: basically, any ‘expert’ who has decided to write a book on the above themes.

So it was with relief, and more than a little amazement, that I read Reclaiming Childhood: Freedom and Play in an Age of Fear, by Helene Guldberg, whose work will be known to regular readers of spiked. Here’s a book written by a real expert – that is, someone who has been a teacher and who has a doctorate in child psychology – which argues that children in Britain are basically alright. It also argues that parents should be trusted to get on with the job of bringing up their children, and outside intervention should only occur in the most extreme cases of neglect. These are properly radical arguments these days.

I asked Guldberg why she wrote a book that runs so counter to mainstream thinking. She says that she, like me, found that today’s many miserabilist childhood books seem to bear no relation to her lived experience. ‘I started from a personal instinct that things weren’t as bad as reports, such as one produced UNICEF, were saying’, she says. ‘When I looked at children and families that I know, I did not see these selfish parents and these traumatised children. From that instinct, I looked at the research from a critical perspective, and discovered that what is called “evidence” in the area of childhood experience does not stand up to rigorous academic investigation.’

What has been the reaction to a book which, let’s face it, pulls no punches, and which critiques a whole industry of child experts and government initiatives? People have a vested interest in ensuring that the childhood intervention industry remains on a roll, so has Guldberg been the subject of a backlash? Well, yes and no. Many people have embraced her book as a breath of fresh air in our fear-laden times, while others, predictably, have responded defensively to her stinging criticisms.

Guldberg tells me that the bit of her book that has proved most contentious is the chapter that questions the anti-bullying campaigns and initiatives. There has been a great deal of government intervention in schools to tackle bullying. A plethora of guidelines for teachers has been produced, and the Department for Children, Schools and Families insists in its guidelines that bullying ‘is not a normal part of growing up and it can ruin lives’.

Since the publication of the book, Guldberg has been vilified by anti-bullying campaigners for arguing that, actually, bullying is a normal part of growing up. ‘As I say in my book, all sorts of normal childish behaviour is now defined as bullying, including calling one another names, excluding one another from playground games. Once these things become redefined as bullying, for which there must be zero tolerance, then every aspect of children’s interaction with each other must be policed. However, I think we should err on the side of caution: adults should not intervene in children’s relationships unless they are confident they will not make things worse.’

As a parent I know how hard it is to follow such advice – but I also know how sound the advice is. When, in Year 4, my daughter returned to school from the summer holidays, a girl who had previously been her good friend turned on her, and got some of the other girls to turn on her, too. My daughter ended up bringing a book to school to read during playtime, and cried herself to sleep every night. My husband had to restrain me from rushing to the school to demand that they intervene. A year-and-a-half later, my daughter is friends with the girl once again, though she is also wisely wary of the friendship. These things happen, and our children need to learn how to deal with them. It might hurt parents to watch from outside, but interfering does not always make things better. Guldberg tells me that we can’t, and in fact shouldn’t, protect our children from ‘emotional bruising’; in her book she explains in depth how children learn important skills of social interaction through playground scraps and what is now known as ‘bullying’.

Guldberg is brave for standing up to the policymakers. The trajectory in social policy today is to treat all of us as damaged individuals, but especially children, who are seen as fragile beings who will be damaged for life if anything bad ever happens to them. This springs from a collapse of belief in people themselves, in the idea that, in fact, people, including children, can be resilient and robust, and that it is precisely through difficult events that we become more resilient and robust.

Guldberg says: ‘People have said things like, “I wonder how she would like being punched on the nose”, or “She should put a picture of herself up and we could ridicule it and see how it feels”. You would think that adults engaging with a debate in a public arena would not respond in this childish way, but might instead put forward some reasoned arguments to make their case.’

It is great that Reclaiming Childhood has made such an impact, getting media coverage and being widely discussed both in Britain and beyond. This suggests that it has hit a nerve, and that people do want to read ideas that run counter to the parent-related doom-mongering of officialdom. Let’s hope this sets a new framework through which we can start thinking about how, as Guldberg puts it, ‘adults can allow children to grow and flourish, balancing sensible guidance with youthful independence’.

Jane Sandeman is convenor of the Institute of Ideas Parents’ Forum.

Reclaiming Childhood, by Helene Guldberg is published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)


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