Monday, February 02, 2009

The Raising of Children

Madonna of András Báthory
Limestone, 68 x 51 cm
Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest

The Archbishop of Canterbury has delivered a blistering critique on modern family life in Britain: we tolerate violence and fail to value stability.

Children’s lives are being blighted by “obsessive” testing, relentless advertising and a long-hours culture that contributes to family breakdown, the Archbishop of Canterbury says in a report published today.

In a scathing attack on a society that he says is organised around the needs and desires of adults, Dr Rowan Williams argues that people must change their ways if Britain is to become a better place for children to grow up in.

He also makes an impassioned plea for marriage to be encouraged and valued, not least to set an example to young people about commitment.

“In plain terms, it will not serve us as a society, and it will not serve the growing generation, if we simply regard marriage as just one option in the marketplace of lifestyles,” he says.

Dr Williams makes his remarks in the report of a two-year study of modern childhood. A Good Childhood was commissioned by the Children’s Society, a charity closely allied to the Church of England. It combines research and views from dozens of experts and academics with submissions from thousands of children.

In a controversial section on family life, the report highlights the high cost paid by children when parents separate. Drawing on 90 studies, it says that on average 50 per cent more children with separated parents have problems at home or school compared with those whose parents stay together. Children of separated parents are far more likely to underperform at school, have low self-esteem, be unpopular with their peers and be prone to depression and anxiety.

More than a quarter (28 per cent) of children whose parents are separated have no contact with their father, it says.

In his chapter of the report, Dr Williams singles out the pressures embedded in the education system for particular criticism.

The testing regime, under which children take national exams at ages 7, 11, 16, 17 and 18, “works for the interests of some parents and some schools, but not in the interests of children”.

He also criticises the “casual attitude” towards preparing teenagers for work that he says is apparent in a lack of investment in training.

Of the present testing and training, Dr Williams says: “These are social habits that might have been deliberately designed to minimise confidence and a steady sense of wellbeing.”

“Intensive” advertising directed at children is also attacked. The report says that advertisements intended to appeal to those under 12 should be banned.

More than 375 pieces of legislation directly affecting children and young people have passed into law between 1997 and 2007 and ministers pride themselves on having made Britain a far more child-friendly place. Yet this is not the only report to suggest that children are faring worse in Britain than in other European countries. The United Nations said that Britain was one of the worst places for children in the developed world, although the Government said that much of its data was old and questioned its methodology.

Britain still has the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in Europe, despite official campaigns, and a higher than average divorce rate.

The report says that mothers going out to work contribute to family break-up. In Britain 70 per cent of mothers of babies aged between 9 and 12 months now do some paid work, compared with only a quarter 25 years ago.

“Their children are cared for by someone other than their parents,” the report says. “[A] second change is the rise in family break-up. Women’s new economic independence contributes to this rise: it has made women much less dependent on their male partners as has the advent of the welfare state. As a result of family break-up a third of our 16-year-olds now live apart from their biological father.”

Dr Williams, however, says in his chapter that he does not blame working mothers as much as employers who demand long hours, which strain relationships. Parents should get up to three years off work between them to care for infants, the report says.

Dr Williams points to evidence that nursery care has some negative effects on children and suggests that friends, family and neighbours should be encouraged to take on childcare.

A drive for self-fulfilment and rampant individualism is making life intolerable for children, he concludes, and calls for change.

“We are deeply in thrall to individualism . . . and this hampers our capacity really to put ourselves at the service of the growth of and safety of the new generation,” he writes. “In short, this report is telling us that adults have to change if children are to be better cared for and their welfare better secured.”

The full comments of Dr Williams are reported here