Has childhood vanished?

Says Sue Palmer, who argues that lack of real food, real play and real interaction has robbed the future generation

I hope this isn't going to deteriorate into a "what is childhood?"

discussion - the one about solemn little mini-adults in Tudor portraits and infants who toiled from dawn to dusk in the fields, and poor unfortunates whipped within an inch of their lives by sadistic schoolteachers.

Or, alternatively, a debate about the adventures of Huck Finn and the Famous Five, and apparent carefree innocence. There have been many versions of childhood in fact and fiction, and I dare say there'll be many more.

But across time, space and cultures, there is just one basic model of human child. It starts off as a tiny baby and grows steadily in mind and body until puberty. After that, we call it an adolescent.

At birth, all children are distractible, impulsive, egocentric little creatures, but by the time they reach the teenage years we expect them - as a result of their experiences, environment and education - to have acquired a degree of self-control, an ability to see other people's point of view and the basic skills needed to enjoy their life ahead.

It's the development from babyhood to adolescence that I investigated for my book, Toxic Childhood, and my conclusion was that many children in Britain today are indeed being robbed of the chance of a healthy childhood.

Many reach adolescence with poor attention spans and self-control and a distinct lack of empathy for the people around them. Their major basic skill is ticking boxes on tests, and this is scandalous.

As one of the richest, most highly developed nations in the world, celebrating 50 years of peace and prosperity, we really should be able to provide the sort of childhood that allows the next generation to grow up happy, healthy and civilised. Instead, many of our children have developed a taste for unhealthy food, a couch-potato lifestyle, and have related problems with sleeping.

An unacceptable number suffer from inadequate early emotional bonding, lack of interaction with their parents and a high level of emotional instability. Rather than stimulating, real-life experiences, children have TV and computer games at home and a narrow test-and-target driven curriculum at school.

Moral guidance has suffered as societies have become increasingly confused, while children are constantly exposed to manipulative advertising and the excesses of celebrity culture. In a recent survey of children's well-being among the countries of the European Union, the UK came 21st out of 25. We should be ashamed of ourselves - and it looks as if we are.

When a colleague and I collected signatures for an open letter about childhood, we were stunned at the response. People, including some very distinguished figures, flocked to sign it. When published in a national newspaper, it drew blanket TV, radio and press coverage and huge mailbags of support from around the country.

So yes, I believe we're robbing our children of something we could provide: the conditions in which to grow up bright, balanced and well-behaved.

Somehow, in the turmoil of rapid social, cultural and technological change over the past 20 years or so, our society has lost sight of essential truths about child development, child-rearing and education.

As a nation, we need to provide parents with information on children's developmental needs, including real food, real play, first-hand experience and real-life interaction with the significant adults in their lives. Since parents are terrified by media hysteria about "stranger danger" and the fevered imaginings of the health and safety lobby, they also need information about the real dangers from which children should be protected - for instance, TVs and other technological paraphernalia in their bedrooms.

As a profession, teachers should refuse to participate in the drive to accelerate childhood with an ever-earlier start to formal education and a competitive winners-and-losers approach to primary education.

We should boycott the tests, targets and league tables and do what we, as professionals, know is best for children. It's time we stopped robbing the next generation of their right to grow up happy, healthy and whole.

Sue Palmer is a literacy consultant and author of Toxic Childhood: how modern life is damaging our children and what we can do about it

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