I’m sure no one can have failed to notice the report from Unicef which puts Britain at the bottom of a league of childhood well-being in 21 developed countries. If the authors of the report are to be believed, being a kid in Britain is a pretty unpleasant experience, and really, that isn’t surprising.
This generation of children start school at the age of four, a year earlier than their parents, and this will usually have been preceded by at least a year in a pre-school nursery environment – any parent who doesn’t enrol their offspring in such an establishment is considered to be a bit of an odd ball. Thirty years ago they would have been the norm. Of course, nursery care is a necessity. Not because it is best for the child, but because the majority of mothers are now in full time employment – two incomes are vital for most families – and these women are being encouraged to return to work earlier and earlier in a country which has the longest working hours in Europe. Gone are the days when a woman would give up work for a few years to have a family. Now, she will return within weeks of the birth, usually reluctantly. A study in 1999 showed that only 4% of new mothers actually wanted to work full time, 43% would, in an ideal world, have preferred to become full time mothers.
The life of a working mother is not an easy one when you consider it involves doing two full time jobs, only one of which you are paid for. It means constant early morning dashes to your child care provider, a race across town to your desk, a full days work, a dash back to the child care provider, then home. It doesn’t stop there. There is a meal to cook, laundry to do, housework, babies to bath, homework help, oh, and if you are very lucky you might even get to talk to the father of your offspring. The latter is not always possible because usually by the time you have both finished with the evening routine, you are so exhausted that you fall asleep in front of the tv. Then in the morning you crawl out of bed and do it all again.
Now, you may be wondering what all this has to do with the happiness and well-being of children. Quite a lot actually. I have a friend who works as a health visitor, her over-riding ethos is that happy mothers tend to have happy children and she makes a huge effort to provide support to the mothers she works with. It makes sense. Children look to their parents for reassurance, if they see them constantly stressed, tired and worried it causes them to feel the same. We have a generation who are growing up with parents who feel just this way, all the time, and this isn’t just a problem in the short term, it creates a horribly negative impression of adult life. What child would look forward to becoming an adult if they believe it is all about spending your life on an endless treadmill.
Since this report was published, I have seen a number of people using the old ‘blame the parents’ chestnut. No, let’s not. Let’s blame a society which makes life bloody hard for parents. This has never been a child friendly country, but at least in the past children were only expected to be seen and not heard. Nowadays, it seems they are expected to be non-existent. Children are viewed as an inconvenience, a problem to be dealt with, the product of a ‘lifestyle’ choice, instead of human beings who are adults in the making. When it snowed last week, I actually heard some employers saying that if people didn’t go into work they would be sacked. The fact that many schools were closed, which meant a large number of children were staying at home and needed to be cared for, did not seem to register with these people. It would be a rare parent indeed who would put someone else’s profits before the safety and well-being of their children, yet, some considered it acceptable to demand that they did just that.
The sad thing is, we do not need to live like this. The Scandinavian countries which top the league also have a high percentage of two income families, yet they don’t experience these problems. For them flexi-time is a normal working pattern, not just a luxury enjoyed by those lucky enough to have forward thinking employers. Many Scandinavian parents are able to plan their working hours so that their children are always cared for by one parent or the other, and even if external care is needed it is high quality and easily available, not over-subscribed and over-priced.
I could continue and discuss the lack of affordable housing – in many families one parent’s income is completely swallowed by housing costs. I could talk about the absence of playgrounds – sold off to the developers of luxury homes. Maybe, I could mention an education system that constantly changes and which places pressure on pupils from the time they are in infant school. However, I will just sum up by saying this: we need to have a long, hard look at the way we live. The children of today will be the adults of tomorrow, and the kind of adults they become will be largely dependent on their experiences now. For the last twenty or thirty years we have lived in a ‘me, me, me’ society, and it just hasn’t worked. The good old fashioned childhood may not have been as idyllic as many of us remember it to be, but it did have it’s advantages. Children were allowed to be children, they weren’t regarded as inconvenient little packages which get in the way of profit, and becoming a parent wasn’t considered to be a lifestyle choice.