Let's decontaminate modern Britain's 'toxic childhood'

1st July 2011 at 01:00
The forces of consumerism are winning the `cool versus school' fight, but parents and teachers together can make a difference

Do you blame the parents? I must admit, I always did - until I became one myself and discovered that caring for your own children is nothing like teaching a class. Quite apart from the gut-wrenching effects of the blood tie, you can't pack them off home at 3.30 every day, there are no weekends off and no holidays .

Over the last few years on the road speaking to parent audiences about "toxic childhood", I've become even more sympathetic. Unlike teachers, most parents have no experience of children, so when they bring their own home from the hospital they have no idea how to treat them. Completely overcome by the wonders of childbirth, they assume that love will see them through.

So in a consumer culture constantly bombarding adults and children with the message that love = stuff, their chances of establishing an authoritative parental regime are practically nil. Big business now uses their offspring as a marketing tool from the moment they're born. The motto of children's commercial channel Nickelodeon sums it up: Kids Rule.

Today's marketers have huge budgets and the services of high-flying child psychologists. They know that if babies are regularly exposed to logos and cuddly-looking mascots, by six months of age they'll point at them in the supermarket . and their parents will buy the products. They know that, by the time children are two, they can be trained to ask for products by name, and (as the Jesuits knew before them) that children who are attached to a brand by the age of seven are theirs for life.

So in the consumerist heaven of modern Britain, playground culture is now utterly in thrall to the market. From nursery school on, peer pressure in the playground translates seamlessly into pester power in the home. And there it meets up with another modern phenomenon greatly beloved of marketers: "guilt money".

This socio-cultural stew has been brewing for decades. It started simmering in the 1980s with all-day TV and computer games, bubbled up nicely during the 1990s with dedicated children's channels and the movement of TVs into children's bedrooms, and is now on a perpetual boil of screen-saturated culture, available to all 247, regardless of age.

For many children in Scotland today - spending an average of five to six hours a day on screen-based activity - commercially-fuelled entertainment, gaming and social networking have taken over from family and social life. They're being brought up, not by their parents, but by multi-national corporations who don't give a damn about their welfare.

The recent government report, Let Children Be Children, on the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood, is the latest response to this phenomenon. Its author, Reg Bailey, consulted thousands of parents through online and face-to-face surveys, and had in-depth discussions with 60 of them in research focus groups. And he found exactly what I find in my talks around the country: parents in all social classes are desperately worried about the way their children are behaving, but feel increasingly powerless to do anything about it.

Bailey makes a number of recommendations for self-regulation by media and marketing organisations, threatening them with government intervention after 18 months if they haven't toed the line. But big business is well versed in slithering around regulations, and since government itself is in thrall to the market, it's unlikely that political intervention will have much effect.

After a decade researching the topic of "toxic childhood", I reckon the only way to save children from the pernicious market-driven culture of cool is for responsible adults to get together and do it themselves. Individuals don't stand a chance against the massed ranks of media and marketing, but it shouldn't be impossible to start a grassroots movement of people who actually care about children's welfare.

And there are two groups who would have a great deal to gain from such a movement - parents (who love their children) and teachers (who want to educate them).

The trouble is that parents and teachers are so often at cross purposes. Another side-effect of competitive consumerist culture is that parents are primed to want red-carpet treatment for their own children, without a thought for the others. Glossy prospectuses and websites promise happy progress through the system, and a clutch of exam passes at the end - so parent-consumers expect nothing less.

Meanwhile teachers desperately try to keep their classroom show on the road in a world of steadily escalating social, emotional and behavioural problems. Not surprisingly, they see parents as the enemy - as well as the ultimate cause of their pupils' difficulties.

But as long as the people who care about children are trapped on this consumerist wheel, the chances of producing "confident individuals, successful learners, responsible citizens and effective contributors" recede every year. The merchants of cool will continue to undermine the influence of school, and - where parents still try to maintain a vestige of authority - of home.

I believe it must be teachers that make the first move - in Scotland, there is still a lingering respect for the authority of the "dominie". If schools can stop blaming parents, and instead help them see how their offspring are being brainwashed by marketers and media, they could work with them to "let children be children".

A hundred years ago, HG Wells suggested that "human history is more and more a race between education and catastrophe". Today it's boiling down to a battle between school and cool. If we put our minds to it, school can win.

Sue Palmer, Independent literacy adviser.

Sue Palmer, a former headteacher in Scotland and author of `Toxic Childhood', was an adviser on the Bailey Report. www.suepalmer.co.uk.

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