Last Night's TV: A Revolution in Childhood BBC4

Hey, parents, leave those kids alone
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The Independent Culture

That Dr Tanya Byron, the one who tells people how to raise their children. I've had my suspicions for some time. At the start of A Revolution in Childhood, Martha Kearney asked her panel of experts to come up with childhood memories. An educationist talked about how she and her brother used to do impressions of Bisto adverts ("Aaaaahhh...."). Tim Gill, who apparently makes a living out of being "one of the UK's leading thinkers on childhood", remembered blowing up cowpats with bangers, behaviour that, he said, would today earn him an Asbo. Dr Tanya, on the other hand, remembered cultivating really large scabs ("Did you eat them?" put in Robert Winston, with a regrettably flirtatious twinkle. Yes, she said, she did), and purposely falling off her bicycle to get the wounds. Later, when the subject turned to play, Dr Tanya argued that parents are too apt to worry about roughness, to demand that children "play nicely". Some of her own best experiences as a child involved play not at all nicely; for example, forcing worms down her sister's throat. I felt it would have been nice to have some input here from the sister. Or from her supervising physician, if that's easier.

However uneasy those anecdotes might make you about leaving Dr Tanya alone with your own offspring, they weren't out of line with the basic theme of this discussion, part of the BBC's current season on childhood: the problem with young people today is not that they are out of control, but that they are too much under it. The children in the BBC's 20-year Child of Our Time project are now eight years old. As part of this year's instalment, they were each followed by cameras for 48 hours non-stop, and the results were fed out here as statistics. What proportion of their day was spent playing (from as little as three per cent, up to 60 per cent), how long in front of the TV (11 hours in a single day for one girl), how much of their conversation with adults consists of parents issuing instructions (practically all of it), how much their parents listen to them (hardly at all), and how far they are allowed to wander. This last point was illustrated with a pair of circular aerial photographs, one representing how far from home a child might go unsupervised these days, one showing how far they went 20 years ago: the area has shrunk by 90 per cent.

If you are a parent, there was enough material here to reduce you to a boiling puddle of guilt and misery: our children are alternately hounded, coddled and ignored into a state of workhouse misery, and the most appalling aspect of this control is that it's so well meant. Imagine how we could warp our children if we put our minds to it. One piece of film showed a dad setting out to play with his two sons at the weekend. Within a few seconds it was painfully clear that simply by being there he had turned a simple bit of messing around with a tennis ball into a performance and a moral exercise. Disputes that should have been swiftly settled with a bit of shouting and quite possibly some minor violence became longwinded competitive whinges. Asked what children most need, one panellist offered "benign neglect", and I felt a surge of satisfaction. I have, with all modesty, a nigh impeccable record of leaving my children to get on with it by themselves and stop bothering daddy when he's trying to read.

I was put back in my place when the conversation moved on to the subject of children, TV, and how thoroughly bad an excess of it is for them. According to an American child psychologist called Jay Belsky, having a television in a child's room is as inappropriate as having sex in public. Elsewhere, Gill pulled out the improbable but, he swore, true statistic that six times as many children are killed by televisions than in playground accidents. But if you leave your children alone, and don't bark out orders, watching TV is what they do. Is there no way out? (Don't write to tell me to get rid of the television: it's how I make my living.)

Still, despite the panic-inducing headlines and some footage of genuinely frustrated, under-stimulated children, overall the programme was reasonable, reassuring and thoughtful. True, Lord Winston made scary noises about how likely children are to meet a paedophile online, but Dr Byron – who headed a government inquiry into children and technology – countered with a shrewd complaint about the way the programme classified computers and TV as something separate from play, as though they don't involve pleasure and imaginative response. Professor Belsky was forceful on the evils of filling children's time with supposedly useful activities – organised sports, music lessons – rather than letting them get on with enjoying themselves. The conclusion was that what children need most is space and time away from adults and their anxieties, just being children. I was shocked. I can't remember the last time a television programme struck me as so thoroughly sensible.