The battle for childhood

We all love children; even politicians do. Yet we are in danger of taking from them everything that

In the Blair v Brown war of words at last month's party conference, the main weapons were "Labour" and "new". And there were plenty more for commentators to chew on. But perhaps the most important word in both of their speeches was one that united the two men. The Prime Minister mentioned children 23 times, the Chancellor no fewer than 40.

Children are a staple of political speeches. Every party and every politician wants "the best for our children". But the emphasis this time was not merely rhetorical. Government policy has taken a decidedly childwards turn: increases in child benefit, child and childcare tax credits, Sure Start programmes for deprived pre-schoolers, "baby bonds" for every child, a minister - albeit a controversial one - for children, promises of a children's commissioner and plans for a children's centre in every town.

In part, this child-centricity is for sound policy reasons. "There is growing awareness that if you are serious about social mobility and life chances, then you have to be serious about children," says Laura Edwards, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research. "And that the earlier you intervene, the better the results." Children are where the social policy action is. In his foreword to the recent green paper on children, Blair wrote: "Our children are everything to us: our hopes, our ambitions, our future."

But the growing child-centred political consensus and the treacly words mask a deep-seated uncertainty about the nature of children and childhood. Are children mini-adults, able to manage a sophisticated consumer environment and influence events? Or are they large toddlers requiring constant protection, not least from the state, against a predatory society? Does their youthful vigour represent the long-term solution to our problems, or are their delinquency and disenchantment the cause? Perhaps most important - with whom does responsibility for their welfare rest?

Listen to Gordon Brown, and children are the little angels who will bear us to a fairer world. Listen to Charles Clarke and they are the army of the new economy. Listen to David Blunkett and they are the thugs blighting our cities. Listen to Tony Blair and, depending on the day, they are all of the above.

The government's pledge to abolish child poverty will be seen as a seminal moment in the history of new Labour. Brown was perhaps at his most authentic when he said in Bournemouth that he was committed to "tackling the greatest unfairness in our society - the unfairness to a child born into poverty. Because that child's deprivation is a daily erosion of life chances, that poverty a reproach to the whole of Britain."

It is easy to pick away at the child poverty pledge. The policy geeks can point out that success will depend on which measure of poverty you use. Sceptics and campaigners will point out that we are still many years from reaching the goal. But at least half a million children have been lifted from poverty since 1997, and those at the very bottom of the pile have had the biggest lift in incomes. Despite less-than-perfect public finances, Brown is preparing to pour more money towards poor children next year.

The new child trust funds, established at birth, are modest - £250 for most children, £500 for the poorest - but demonstrate a willingness to make investments with only very long-term returns. Brown has long been children's best friend in government. Yes, more can be done. Yes, the redistribution is too cautious and cloaked. But on the fiscal side, the government's report card is good with regard to children.

Their welfare is more than a matter of money. Providing an adequate financial foundation is a necessary but not sufficient component of a progressive politics for children. We also need to create for children a space big enough and safe enough for them to learn about themselves and the world, and where they can develop skills and character that will serve them for life.

Judging by this benchmark, we are failing. The borders of the country called childhood are shrinking fast. We increasingly embrace ideas of children's rights while, as Yvonne Roberts wrote recently in the Observer, "we are in danger of erasing what it means to be a child".

The territory of childhood is threatened by three main enemies: commercialisation, paranoia and the privatisation of parenting. In each case, the dangers become stronger by the year. And resistance is ragged. In the area where government action is most urgently needed - the regulation of commercial messages and the media - ministers have been coy to the point of cowardice. There is growing awareness that the daily bombardment of advertisements that children absorb has a significant impact on their behaviour and decision-making. This should not be a surprise: after all, it would hardly represent a good investment on the part of the firms if it did not. A recent Food Standards Agency report shows a clear link between exposure to food and drink adverts and child obesity - which is rising rapidly.

This month, the National Family and Parenting Institute will publish MORI research showing that parents cite commercial pressure, via child-targeted adverts, as the single most difficult aspect of raising children today. The quiet voices calling for more regulation are about to rise to a clamour. But Tessa Jowell, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, has shied away from regulation, backing instead "educational initiatives" to help children "decode" advertising.

However, even those who claim that adults make "free" consumption choices struggle to show, for example, that children's eating habits are not influenced by the eight ads for junk food or drink they ingest with each hour of TV. Similarly, the violence of computer games and the psychological nastiness of many programmes contribute to the distorted development of young minds. "The media, in their broadest sense, are a pervasive influence," says Mary MacLeod, chief executive of the family and parenting institute. "It is not about censorship, it is about the volume of what I suppose you might call 'bullying' TV, which works by being nasty to people in some way - that's the currency; that's what gets the laugh."

Small wonder that children are now more materialistic, dreaming about jobs that bring them riches, rather than eagerly planning their careers as train drivers or nurses. They are acutely aware of brands and of the need to use them to signal their status among their peers. For girls, especially, sexual life starts earlier, as does wearing the sexy outfits to match. Small wonder, too, that prescription rates for antidepressants and Ritalin are soaring.

The decision to allow the sale of sweet-tasting alcopops similarly flies in the face of children's best interests - over the summer, hospitals reported a sharp increase in the number of children admitted with alcohol-related illness or injury. Some in the alcohol lobby had privately predicted that this would be a step too far for the health-conscious Labour government, but got a pleasant surprise.

Liberals shudder at talk of upholding moral standards or of censorship. But in their absence, we allow the market to dictate the messages absorbed by our children. And the market has no morals: acceptability is what people are prepared to sell and children prepared to buy, or pester their parents to buy. The government is getting money to children, especially those most in need. It is doing nothing to protect them from a sustained attempt by business to persuade them to spend it in harmful ways.

If the first threat to childhood is poor protection from the real dangers posed by commercialisation, the second is overprotection from the mostly imaginary dangers beyond the front door. Public panics about paedophiles and abduction have led to a generation of children being incarcerated in their homes. We ram into our children the notion of "stranger danger", ensuring that they grow up seeing the world, and other people, as hostile and dangerous - and then wonder why levels of trust are falling.

The incidents so vividly and repeatedly reported in the press are extremely rare and almost certainly becoming less frequent. According to a study by the Glasgow academic Stuart Waiton, quoted by Frank Furedi in Paranoid Parenting, between 1988 and 1999 the number of children murdered between the ages of five and 16 decreased from four per million to three per million in England and Wales, while the number murdered under the age of five dropped from 12 per million to nine per million. Cases of abduction in which the offender was found guilty dropped from 26 to eight over the same period. But a year after the brutal murder of two-year-old James Bulger, 97 per cent of parents saw the possible abduction of their children as their "greatest fear".

It is not simply television and the tabloids: the same message is driven home in every medium. In the Winnie the Pooh Growing Up Stories, Piglet asks Christopher Robin: "Why can't we talk to people we don't know? Are they d-dangerous?" Christopher Robin replies: "We can't tell the difference between a good stranger and a bad stranger just by looking, so we should never talk to any strangers." Anyone outside the child's family circle is guilty until proven innocent. Meanwhile, the greatest risk to children, as Victoria Climbie's case demonstrated, continues to come from within that circle.

But with three out of every four parents saying they are very worried about their children's safety in relation to "other people", children are kept home, pulled away from amiable dog-walkers and ferried in the protective steel cage of a car. More parents give "stranger danger" as the reason for driving children to school than any other factor, a point lost in the recent debate about the school run. We keep our children away from the streets because of our fear of paedophiles and abductors, and the speeding SUVs other parents drive because of their fear of paedophiles and abductors, and feed them on a diet of TV and computer games that, cumulatively, comprise a much greater threat to their living a happy, fulfilling and healthy life. We are raising a generation to be fat and fearful.

The insulation of children from broader society reflects and accentuates the detachment of broader society from child-rearing. Raising children is being privatised into the hands of their parents; it is seen as a job only for them, not for all of us. This erosion of collective responsibility for children represents perhaps the gravest threat of all to our hopes for a space for childhood.

Hillary Clinton used the African proverb "It takes a village" to capture her message about community responsibility for children - in fact, it probably takes a town. But the trend is in the opposite direction. "Adult solidarity", in Furedi's phrase, is on the decline. People are less likely to welcome, watch out for, comfort or admonish children other than their own. The police express amazement in incident after incident that a child was allowed to wander so far without anybody intervening. If a child falls over, we dare not comfort them for fear of being seen as a pervert; if they behave antisocially, we dare not confront them. There has been a steady loosening of the bonds between people and children other than their own, expressed in the hostile response towards children in restaurants, trains and planes, in the constant vilification of parents who cannot "keep their children under control" and in the failure collectively to establish and enforce benign disciplinary boundaries for behaviour. "We don't live in a kibbutz," says MacLeod, "but we do have a shared responsibility for children's welfare."

The forthcoming MORI poll will show that although most parents agree that the UK is not a family-friendly country, legislation is not the answer. The critical shift needed is in attitudes.

The steady disengagement of the wider community leaves so much in the hands of parents that the state is increasingly forced to intervene - both as supporter of parents through educational initiatives and parenting classes, and as policeman through truancy fines and closer social services monitoring. As MacLeod points out, the tone of much government rhetoric to parents is: "It's up to you - but we're going to tell you how to do it."

A progressive politics for children does not end with the eradication of child poverty. It requires a concerted defence of the borders of childhood against materialism, fear and atomisation. And if standing up against corporate interests and taking responsibility for the children of other people sounds as much like a moral as a political imperative, that is because it is.

Creating a secure foundation for our children requires the maintenance of a clear set of moral standards - words that again ring uneasily in liberal ears. But the structure of free choices has always to be underpinned by an ethical framework, as the philosopher Joseph Raz argues in perhaps the most important sentence of his Morality of Freedom: "Individuals define the contours of their own lives by drawing on the communal pool of values." Our children are having to define their lives without a clear "communal pool of values" to draw upon. And we are all to blame: parent and non-parent, politician and non-politician.

The good news is that the government is increasingly tackling the financial barriers to a flourishing beginning to life. The bad news is this is only a small part of the picture. We are living up to our fiscal responsibilities but abdicating collective moral ones.

Writing during the Labour conference, Polly Toynbee of the Guardian lamented that "children just aren't political. Everyone is in favour of them: there is no battle of ideas to be had." On the contrary, children are moving centre-stage politically. And there is a huge battle to be had - for the very idea of childhood.

Richard Reeves is a research associate of the Work Foundation