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Songs of Innocence. The Story of British Childhood, By Fran Abrams

Changing roles for children within the family, and society, are charted in this insightful study

We are born with evil in us and cruelty is part of this", William Golding said, in an interview shortly before his death about the child murderers of even younger James Bulger. As author of the seminal novel Lord of the Flies his views carried weight, even though only a couple of the fictional all-male juniors marooned on his fated island are described as determinedly wicked – the rest simply follow the pack.

Contrasting adult views on the true nature of the early years, veering between a belief in essential innocence to a conviction of underlying depravity, form the starting point for Fran Abrams' well-written survey of British attitudes to childhood over the last two centuries. But the more persistent argument coming up in her book is over assessing the proper balance between vulnerability and resilience in the young – an issue still debated in disputes about the benefits or otherwise of Health and Safety regulations.

The resilience faction includes those former Rugby pupils in the 1890s who continued to defend compulsory 12-mile runs for all even after a junior boy had dropped down dead at the finishing post. Those supporting vulnerability drew strength from the establishment of the RSPCA in 1824. How, they argued, can it be right to allow animals better protection than children when it came to reported cases of cruelty and starvation in the home? Such arguments finally lead to the establishment of the NSPCC, more than 60 years afterwards.

There was a wider issue here. Over time children, rather like house pets, have gradually relinquished their former role as economic necessities to working families in favour of becoming the prime emotional focus for the parents and grandparents looking after them. This passage from potential wage-earner as soon as possible to long-term scholar and hoped-for loving companion was also influenced by the way families were getting smaller. Surviving offspring now had a scarcity value as well.

For Abrams, one of the offshoots of these changes in attitudes to childhood was an acceptance of psychology as the right way of understanding the young. But politicians and tabloid editors for a start still often find this way of thinking untenable, particularly when it comes to assigning blame for juvenile misdeeds. British reactions to children therefore continue to vary from near-medieval to the sort of opinion found in the latest progressive article in the Guardian, a newspaper much quoted in this book and for which the author is a frequent contributor. This wide divergence of views operates from family to family and sometimes within the same one. Any sweeping generalisations about over-all attitudes towards children therefore remain suspect, although there are plenty of them still to be found in these pages.

Abrams finishes her book on a glum note, drawing attention to the current unemployment figures for the young – 22 per cent this year compared to 3 per cent in the 1960s. She wonders whether parents who once welcomed babies into their lives might come to regret their continuing presence when these have turned into ageing cuckoos still taking up space in the family nest. Used to possessing spending power, these young people now often lack an offsetting earning capacity to match. She is also concerned about their state of mind. More British children currently live in a single-parent or a step-family than any others apart from American children. They are also less likely to sit down to a family meal on a regular basis. A UNICEF survey on child 'wellbeing' conducted across a range of rich countries, found UK children the worst behaved and the least content with their family lives.

Economic privation always impacts on childhood for the worse, and it is of course tragic that so many young people can no longer see a clear way forward in terms of regular and satisfying employment. But it is also possible for determined governments or even individuals still to make a difference whatever the odds. For all his idiosyncrasies Lord Baden-Powell brought about massive changes for the good in many children's lives with the introduction of his Boy Scout movement. His sister Agnes achieved the same success with the Girl Guides. With today's Youth Services cut and demoralised, could someone of B-P's enormous energy and self-belief arrive on the scene one day to put in place some similar magic?

Nor will tomorrow's children necessarily remain passive. In 1911 there was a wave of school strikes organised by pupils in protest at injustices in the classroom. Something like this briefly resurfaced in 1968 when crockery was smashed and thrown at the Newbold Infants' School after children bullied out of their dinner tickets could no longer bear to watch their tormentors tucking into their food. One hundred and sixty children rampaged through the school, pelting dinner ladies with bean bags. Surveying the scene next day, Alderman Cyril Smith, chairman of the Local Education Committee, opined that the pupils involved needed "a bloody good hiding". On this occasion, he did not manage to administer this himself. Might the next riots of disaffected youth take place in schools rather than the streets?

There is never going to be a perfect state of childhood. Eliminating infectious diseases with antibiotics and better housing conditions did nothing to stop new problems of affluence like road traffic accidents, air pollution and obesity. Limiting long working hours can seem a hollow victory once the only alternative is a three day week. Focusing attention on once hidden child sexual abuse can also lead to some parents keeping their children indoors at the weekends and teachers becoming afraid of applying sticking plaster to pupils' cuts or bruises, even though there is nothing in any existing ruling against doing this.

But from the evidence of Abrams' at times provocative but always thoughtful book, there is still much for any contemporary child to be grateful for. Routine social prejudice against illegitimacy, with sailors in the First World War docked sixpence a day for their wives and children but only fourpence for any bastards, ignoring or scorning the disabled and actively discouraging girls to achieve in education all belong to the past. Improved health care and living conditions, nursery classes and free school meals for the needy, abolishing corporal punishment in schools – the list of positive developments goes on. Whether today's children also see it like this is another matter.

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