NS Essay - Babies have now to be trained in the Protestant work ethic
As parents claim the credit if their child succeeds and professionals say there's something wrong wi
Until fairly recently, I thought that the need to black out a room entirely was something to do with the Blitz. I was wrong. No, curtains should have black-out lining and should be fixed on a track that is flush with the top of the window. There should be no gaps between the sides of the curtains and the window frame. No chink of light should enter the room. The aim is to have a room "so dark that you are unable to see your partner standing at the other side".
Is this to fool the foe? In a way - for I am quoting from a bestselling baby book read by supposedly sane and rational women. It is The Contented Little Baby Book, by the childless Gina Ford. The enemy who must be kept in the dark is no longer the Hun; it is your own baby. A friend of mine who followed Ford's regime, and got the desired results, referred to it as "Nazi sleep training". I don't mean to mock those desperate for a good night's sleep (well, I do, actually) - but Ford's huge success is indeed a sign of these repressive times.
When I had my first child, 20 years ago, it was all about co-sleeping and breastfeeding on demand (ie, non-bloody-stop.) The model was vaguely West African. If you could manage to strap your baby on to you with a bit of bright material, so much the better. I never could, and the feeding on demand was achieved only when I could have Newcastle Brown on demand. Still, we read a lot about what mothers did in the Amazonian rainforest and tried our best to personify this ancient knowledge, even though we lived in Camden.
Nowadays, child-rearing is even more fraught. You cannot put the baby in a cot, for fear of cot death - but you cannot sleep with it either, for fear of squashing it in the night. What is more, you must establish a strict routine and this routine must never, ever be interrupted. Babies have now to be trained in the Protestant work ethic. They must follow a pattern, stick to the rules, wake up and go to sleep at appro-priate times and eat only at prescribed mealtimes. Those who bemoan the end of child-centred education really have no idea about what is happening to our six-month-olds. I would argue that it is getting harder even to have a child-centred childhood, as it is so full of inflexible routines and the ominous regime of "early learning".
Why worry about a silly baby book? Because over the past three decades the changes in the ways we treat our children have been huge, and yet they are always spoken of as individual choices. When we talk of children, we tend to do so either in sentimental or in marketing terms, as if they were consumers of failing services.
Thus the debate around education centres on performance, inadequacy and lack of choice. A Martian would conclude from most public debate that each generation is substantially "thicker" than the preceding one. Kids today lack drive and basic skills, unless they were educated privately and then horribly discriminated against. Not only are they more stupid but fatter, too, because they cannot play outside, as this puts them in mortal danger. It does not matter that, in fact, our children are probably healthier and safer than ever before. It doesn't feel that way. Frank Furedi, in his book Paranoid Parenting, quotes an eminently sensible headmistress who decries today's parenting style as "the worst-case-scenario approach".
Furedi describes this well, calling it an "overall crisis of parental nerve". Surely, this loss of nerve tells us something deeply worrying about our culture: that we are no longer able to trust our own children. Over-parenting has produced a situation where children operate as the ultimate validators of a parent's sense of self, but as a consequence are unable to become fully independent adults in their own right.
As we are having fewer and fewer children, the likelihood of this kind of hyper-parenting grows. It is a mindset which demands that we become not simply a child's parent, but its teacher, its advocate in the barren world of education, its therapist, its best friend, its dietician. All this work must be squashed into that misleading phenomenon - quality time. Parents are inevitably spoken of as time-starved because of their long working hours; they must therefore compensate with this sort of intense and intrusive but obviously educational focus.
Is this what parenting is? I ask because being with a child is often full of banal, repetitive activities. It is monotonous, because small children often like to do the same things over and over again. They do not want to do a Boohbah jigsaw and move on, they want to do the same puzzle 20 times. Sometimes they like to do very little other than sit and stare.
Clearly, I am of the old school which believes that boredom leads to creativity. This is not a theory, but works in practice. Yet this is the opposite of the current ethos where compulsory creativity leads to overloaded ennui, with kids being hauled around museums and forced to produce works of art on instruction.
Allowing a child to be bored requires a degree of trust that is no longer the norm. The bored child may be depressed or may cause trouble. The adolescent whose philosophy is "I am bored, therefore I am" is seen as almost entirely problematic. If two or more teenagers are gathered together, it is assumed that they are doing something wrong. Not only do we not trust our teenagers, we actively fear them. Listen to parents talking about secondary schools, and you will hear over and over again that they dread their precious little 11-year-olds being surrounded by those great hulking thugs and sullen girls. I know: I've done it myself.
Some teenagers indeed do very bad things, yet we act as if they all do. The current TV series Brat Camp, in which six badly behaved British teenagers have been forced to hike through the wilderness in Utah, is entertaining partly because the teenagers aren't really that bad. They are spoilt and selfish and they smoke too much dope. Yet they are not into serious drugs or crime. Snotty and self-centred beyond belief, they are supervised by the camp's weirdly calm authoritarian hippies, with names like Running Water, whose philosophy is a belief in the power of transformation mainly by getting the kids to perform arduous but pointless tasks. It works: the kids are becoming more and more reasonable as the programme becomes less fun. We want to see their temper tantrums, their monstrous egos, their piercings being forcibly removed, their spots erupting on cue.
Yes, these kids are highly slappable, but they are of a different class from those work-shy losers who bunked off from Jamie Oliver's kitchen. Those are the ones that we need to worry about most, and Oliver rehabilitated himself by his superhuman sheer efforts to motivate the young people. Most of them had passed through the education system without ever thinking of themselves as anything but victims. They were not grateful for the chance they had been given.
Kids who have been written off have been brought up to think it's not their fault. And in some ways it isn't. The view that parental influence is all, that it entirely moulds a child, is so oversubscribed that children exist in a kind of vacuum. If children do well, it is to the credit of their family; if they do badly, something has gone wrong at home. Thus we remove any sense of individual responsibility or even personality difference. Anyone with more than one child will tell you, shockingly, that even children brought up in the same family are entirely different. Some are academic, some are not, some like sports, some don't.
Paradoxically, however, the belief that nurture is everything, though challenged in many areas of science, has filtered down to the child-rearing masses. Children are often our only creative projects, reflections of our ability to be good at something.
Thus an entire industry is devoted to both arousing and then catering to anxiety in parents. The foetus must not only be stimulated in the womb with a mixture of whale noises and Mozart, it must be protected from all toxic substances that its vile mother might choose to imbibe. From there via Gina Ford and "toddler taming", it is but a short stroll to all those guides that tell you how to get your child into Oxbridge. And Oxbridge is still the unifying aim of proper parents in our "classless" meritocracy, as I have found out all too often over the sea bass.
There is really little difference between the insane advice in books such as Ford's Potty Training in One Week (basically, sit them on a potty for an entire week and, amazingly, some bodily function will occur. Whaddya mean, you have a life?) and books that tell you how to get them into the right schools (basically, sit them in an exam room for years until some mental function occurs).
There is little room for any notion of trusting to nature in either potty training or performing in SATs. The child that can wee on demand will surely be able to get A-star on demand. Is any of this right? Does it produce children who are more contented? Not according to any of the statistics revealing the phenomenal stress and depression shown by our youngsters. This is usually put down to outside forces. Nasty old consumer society. One minute it's all Montessori, the next it's MTV - and there is not a damned thing you can do about it.
Only a weirdo bothers to ask about the actual happiness of our children. For the goal of all our "paranoid parenting" is not happiness. It is educational success. New Labour may well have A-stars in nonsense mantras, but the phrase "education, education , education" has to be one of the dumbest ever. What is it all for? Jobs. Yet most of our graduates do not get jobs where you need a degree - which in turn shows that any idea of education for its own sake, for the good of all, is simply wasteful.
The result of all of the government's incessant target- setting - what Michael Fielding wonderfully called "the Viagra of economic and educational underperformance" - is the deranged behaviour of the middle classes over schools. Really, if I have to have another conversation, through no fault of my own, about the almighty abuse involved in sending a child to the local school, I may end up assassinating David Miliband.
While the media churn out supplements to guide parents through the dangerous and difficult process of sending their child to school, actual analysis of the benefits of their increasingly exam-heavy and competitive system is not provided. Little publicity was given last year to the pronouncement by a UN representative, Katarina Toma-evski, that the testing regime in English schools breaches the UN convention on children's rights. Current estimates say a child will take 105 tests or exams during his or her school career. Toma-evski wondered if England wanted to "become another Singapore" (unfortunately for the Blairites, the answer is probably yes). Speaking generally about our system, she said that testing was producing uniformity, that children had become "hostages of a battle which is highly political" and that the ideology of target-setting and delivery had come from command-and-control economies such as China and the former Soviet Union. She was, it appeared, an education expert concerned about children. She was, of course, ignored.
To move away from the current system would require an ability that we have lost. We would have to be able to trust our children to be more or less OK. The children who are clearly not going to be OK, the children of the poor, are increasingly marginalised or drugged. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is not exclusively but largely a "disease" of poverty.
It cannot be said enough, but most of our children are healthy and safe and get some sort of education, whatever we might do to them. They will eventually make their own way in the world. They may even have to learn to sleep in rooms that have not been entirely blacked out. The outside world will come into their lives, whatever we do, and surely when it does, we want them to embrace it, not be frightened of it. But if they are not happy and successful, whose fault is it? Not theirs. Yet how can it be ours when, after all, we did everything for them: we gave up our lives for them, we had them tutored into the ground, we thought long and hard about schools and gave them the right books and educational toys, we paid their tuition fees, we sent them on gap years, we asked them to embody all our hopes and fears, to prove that we had done the best, that we were the best? Did we have time to ask them if they were happy? Of course not. We were far too busy worrying about their future.
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