The last chance for childhood

19th May 2006 at 01:00
Modern society has forgotten how to rear its young. Gerald Haigh reads an impassioned plea for government to act before it's too late

Toxic Childhood: How the modern world is damaging our children and what we can do about it

By Sue Palmer

Orion pound;12.99

Why do so many parents take their children on cruise ships? Of the 2,000 passengers on the last cruise I went on, 400 were children. The toddlers had to spend ages strapped in their buggies (lots of harrumphing from older folk about that) and some of the sub-teens discovered pastimes that were dangerous to themselves and annoying to everyone else. So why bother when, close to home, there are beaches and rock pools, camps and fields, and farms and animals? You long to say: "Enjoy your kids while they're young.

They'll grow up only too quickly. Then you can go on a cruise." But, of course, you stay quiet and make tutting noises instead.

Replete as Toxic Childhood is with the author's own examples of where attitudes to childhood have gone wrong - children are awake too long, watching too much TV, not taking enough exercise, not conversing, eating the wrong food, behaving badly - it hardly needs beefing up with anecdotes from me. I include this one, though, because Sue Palmer has an answer to my question. It's because today's parents are largely deprived of the on-tap wisdom of a generation who've done it and seen it all before, so the emotional ups and downs of parenthood simply take them by surprise; they don't know what to do. "With the death of the extended family, contemporary adults' knowledge about child-rearing is often limited to vague memories of their own childhood... assisted perhaps by a few impressions from TV," she writes.

This explains, she suggests, how columnists and celebrities can get away with making puerile statements about their children. She quotes the actress Julia Roberts, writing about her twins: "The babies are amazing. The way they stare into your eyes, their exuberant smiles..." Right, Julia. And Mozart wrote a good tune and the Taj Mahal's quite nice.

This is a book that, perhaps unusually, is written by someone who's expert enough to realise when it's necessary to consult those who know even more; some writers on childhood problems lack her depth of insight. The result is a book that works at three levels. First, it's for the people who don't know that it's good to give children the right stuff to eat, give them space to play and exercise, talk to them and put them to bed at the right time. In that sense, it's a super child-rearing manual, founded in science, and bolstered by much reading, a lot of interviews and, most importantly perhaps, a long career in education that's taken the author into hundreds of schools. So, there is lots of advice such as, on exercise for young children: "Give babies opportunities to lie in their tummies and backs (but put them to sleep on their backs)"; and "create safe spaces for toddlers to run, play and tumble - preferably both indoors and out".

Second, the way Palmer supports her arguments with research and references to experts gives the book currency and credibility among professionals. A chapter on children's sleep regimes, for example, quotes a paediatric sleep specialist, Marc Weissbluth, on the need for toddlers to have naps, and a psychologist, Marie Winn, on the way that using TV as a babysitter removes the incentive for mothers to put toddlers down for their naps. Palmer also quotes US and UK studies on children's sleep problems, and Professor Jim Horne of the Loughborough Sleep Research Centre on the connection between attention-deficithyperactivity disorder and sleep disturbances.

She's careful, too, when she writes about children's nutrition. This is an area of study so cluttered with unproven theories and triple-distilled nonsense that I was immediately suspicious when I read, in a chapter headed "Food for Thought": "Recent studies suggest that the 'cocktail' of additives consumed in a diet of processed food and soft drinks could be a contributory factor in behavioural problems." My sceptical "says who?" was answered by a supporting reference to the work of Dr Vyvyan Howard of Liverpool University, a toxico-pathologist with a special interest in the vulnerability of the foetus and infant to toxic substances.

There's a third facet to this book, though, and it's the one that's likely to grab the attention. Palmer's argument, simply, is that we have created, or allowed to be created, or had forced upon us, or all three, a society which is harbouring all the makings of a cultural crisis because of the way our children are growing up.

"Poor child. Poor parents. Poor Western civilisation - indeed the whole of the developed world - which now teems with miserable little creatures, male and female, toddlers to pre-teens." That's from page one of the introduction. Palmer goes in hard right from the start, with a picture of modern childhood that risks losing readers who think they've stumbled across a script for Grumpy Old Women. Many will want to respond with, "Was it not ever thus?"

It's certainly true that the older generation has always grumbled about the younger, but there's a good case for saying that today we are dealing with a social malaise of a different order. Sue Palmer reminds us, for example, that children's behavioural and emotional problems, ADHD, and actual mental illness, are all becoming increasingly common. The problem is that powerful new forces are in the ring now. Global corporations are pouring millions of pounds into marketing junk snacks, junk toys, junk television programmes and junk computer games, using pressures that a parent who's already short of time and steadying trans-generational support is ill-equipped to resist.

So what is to be done? Should the state be involved? That, as Palmer acknowledges, is a political hot potato, but she believes that things are so bad that the nettle ought to be grasped and parents given more top-down advice. "At the very least, they might find it helpful to have the state's muscle behind them when explaining why early bedtime is important or a TV in the bedroom isn't a good idea." Perhaps it's like global warming: almost too late to do anything at all.

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