Our toddler's no thug!

30th July 2004 at 01:00
Too many commentators on the right age to start nursery school dump their prejudices into a pot and stir rapidly, says Stuart Waiton

Reading the headlines about nurseries "turning kids into thugs", it appears my beautiful three-year-old daughter has already been earmarked as a criminal! OK I'm exaggerating, but not by much.

Recent reports following extensive research in Britain and the United States have apparently discovered that children who attend nursery from an early age will, by the age of four, be more antisocial than those who start nursery later. The assumption made in the press and in subsequent discussions on the radio is that the early nursery children are unable to bond properly with their parents and are therefore in some way unstable.

Like most discussions about detailed research nowadays, those people commenting upon the findings appear to know very little about the intricacies of these studies and instead dump their existing prejudices into the pot and stir rapidly.

One "radical" response to this issue on a Radio 5 discussion, as usual, took the framework of the debate as given and simply argued for better pay for nursery staff, so that "they would stay in the job and bond with the child". Like many claims for resources, whether for play parks, youth clubs, or indeed childcare, the justification for "better pay for nursery workers" is made here on the basis that this will reduce the antisocial behaviour of children.

Thankfully at least one online news site has analysed the research and shown that the findings are far from the gloomy picture being painted - see Helene Guldberg on spiked-online. Rather than repeat the points made by Dr Guldberg here, I would like to question the basis on which these three and four-year-old children have been labelled antisocial or at least the way this has been interpreted in the press.

The very notion that three or four-year-olds are "antisocial" strikes me as rather strange, but especially when the concerns raised have been about the aggressiveness and assertiveness of the children in question. My daughter Lily, for example, has an incredible will and is indeed aggressive and assertive, and compared with the children I see who cry every time their mother or father leaves them - as I did, apparently, when my mother dropped me off at nursery - Lily's level of independence makes me proud, not concerned.

However, the idea that show me the three-year-old and I'll show you the man, or woman in Lily's case, is now well established. For example, a Scottish Office review of research into young people and crime noted that "there is a consensus that the basis for a criminal career begins in childhood". Two of the key researchers quoted, Farrington and Rivara, argued that the most important group of professionals in the fight against crime and violence will be paediatricians.

The reality is that many things, not least of all changing social conditions and opportunities, impact upon us as we grow and continue to do so throughout our adult lives. Rather than telling us anything about children, the panic headlines about "nursery thugs" tell us more about adults and the insecurities of society.

A confident and dynamic society that had a positive vision of the future would no doubt embrace these aggressive toddlers, indeed I doubt the activities of assertive three-year-olds would even warrant a mention within public discourse. It is adults who make and change society, not children, but politicians have given up on trying to change the minds of adults and today feel more comfortable interfering in the lives of infants.

Whether it is nursery care, teenage pregnancy task forces, citizenship classes or bullying tsars, the brave new world is apparently being made in classrooms and creches, not in the Scottish Parliament or within public debate. Political passions are reserved for issues about what we do to our children, rather than what we do with our lives.

Instead of being obsessed about childhood and anti-social infants, we should demand more and better nurseries, not to stop antisocial behaviour but to allow adults, especially women, to play a fuller role in society and perhaps create the dynamism and will that my Lily shows me.

Stuart Waiton is the author of Scared of the Kids? (Perpetuity Press).

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