It is just under a year to wait until the next Wealden Festival. It is my favourite weekend of the year. The gathering in Kent invites guests to look closely at the world through literature and craft. This year Michael Morpurgo brought a full tent to tears and AC Grayling inspired us to think about the value of self-awareness. The festival also ran a photography competition for schools. The theme? Look closer, pay attention.
Pay attention. It’s an interesting phrase. To pay implies parting with something in exchange for something of equal value. We choose where to pay our attention because attention is a precious resource. To have something taken without giving permission is to be robbed. The attention economy, the axis of the social media business model, aims to do exactly that – to steal our attention. Anxiety and depression can follow. A 2015 study by King’s College London, “Attentional Control Theory in Childhood”, found a clear correlation. Was anyone paying attention?
[See also: The decline of the social media text post]
I recently visited a school to share my new children’s book. At the end of the story I asked: “How does it make you feel when you go somewhere in your imagination?” Several children raised their hands. George, aged five, answered: “It makes me feel like there is space when everything is so busy.”
On 14 June HarperCollins and Farshore launched their Dads Make Stories Magic campaign, encouraging fathers to pledge time to read with their children. Reading aloud to children is as important as teaching them to read, if they are to become readers themselves. By giving a child attention, and inviting them to give theirs, parents support children in developing vital skills while conveying emotional security and a sense of worth. There is no better way to nurture a child.
“What does a rabbit eat, Bobbie?” I asked. “That green thing,” he replied. “What’s that?” “I don’t know.” Bobbie is seven. He finds it hard to sit still. His limited nutritional experience and vocabulary is not uncommon. I volunteer with Coram Beanstalk, helping disengaged readers to develop trust and a love of books. It’s not about phonics, it’s about being lost in the pages. We chat a lot too. Bodies and minds are connected, and nourishing them both is fundamental to the development of young children.
As I travel, I listen to books, most recently, Kimberley Wilson’s Unprocessed: How the Food We Eat is Fuelling Our Mental Health Crisis. Choline, Wilson tells us, is an essential nutrient during pregnancy, supporting healthy brain development. She highlights a study in the US which demonstrates a link between maternal choline intake during pregnancy and attention span in children aged seven. Maternal choline deficiency correlated with reduced attention span in the child. Current data suggests that 90 per cent of women of childbearing age are deficient in choline.
Education and mental health
In April the Royal Society of Arts hosted an event on “the changing face of 21st-century education and learning”. Rachel Sylvester analysed research to show that between 2021 and 2023 the number of children suffering from mental health issues rose from one in six, to one in four. Responses focused on curriculum change, the stifling pressure of exams and the limits of measurable outcomes, with emphasis placed on the role of schools, teachers and education policy – vitally important elements that demand our attention. But as Tony Little wrote in his An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Education, “Schools and their teachers have been increasingly asked to shoulder the burdens of social problems that should be the shared responsibility of others in society, especially the family.”
The human gaze
“Look me in the eye when I am talking to you.” It’s a phrase I remember hearing as a child and one that I recently used with my own. But children have a right to demand the same. Primary school teachers report a significant increase in pupils entering school with limited communication skills, unable to feed themselves or not yet potty trained. Teachers suggest two reasons for this: lack of nursery provision during lockdown and parental smartphone addiction.
To keep pace with the technological revolution we need an overhaul of public understanding and a culture of education. We must teach children how to pay attention to the world, how to look someone in the eye and interpret their thoughts. This requires us all to put down our phones and look our children in the eye.
This article appears in the 28 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The war comes to Russia