All aboard the bus for a bit of emotional need

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The Independent Online

It's a funny thing, news. Constantly moving. Perpetually updating. Always consuming itself. Only the thing is, if you stand still for long enough it will, like a No 11 bus, come round again eventually and meet you in the place you have been waiting.

It's a funny thing, news. Constantly moving. Perpetually updating. Always consuming itself. Only the thing is, if you stand still for long enough it will, like a No 11 bus, come round again eventually and meet you in the place you have been waiting.

We have a new form of deprivation this week. It's called "poverty of attention" and it's been discovered by one Rosanne Musgrave, the outgoing headmistress of a fee-paying girls' school and a former president of the Girls' Schools Association.

It is suffered by a significant minority of children from affluent, ambitious families where the parents spend so much time at work they cannot find even one hour a day to spend with their children. To compensate they shower them with material goods and jam their "quality time" with worthy activities like visits to museums or other uplifting educational projects.

It does not work. Instead it creates an emotional deficiency as real as the material deprivation suffered by children from poor backgrounds. The offspring who want for nothing often end up alienated and bitter about the neglect they have suffered.

But hang on. Haven't we been here before - only we used to call it boarding school. The good old Duke of Edinburgh gave the game away on this yesterday: "Curious things, holidays," he said, on a visit to a new primary school to which the children had returned from holiday just for the day, especially to sing for the old royal curmudgeon.

"You send your children to school," he mused in his thoughtful way, "to get them out of your hair." (So that's what it's for.) "Then they come back for holidays and make life difficult for parents; that is why holidays are set so they are just about the limit of your endurance." (Wasn't it something to do with helping with the harvest in the old days?) Then, when you've had as much as you can stand, "you send them back to school." So that's the secret of bringing up four happy, well-balanced royal children.

Yet there is a difference between packing the kids off to boarding school and just never getting home in time to see them. It's something to do with intent. These are the best of times, and the worst of times, as Charles Dickens said of an earlier era. Increasingly we live with what the US psychologist David G Myers calls in the title of his new book, The American Paradox. He reminds us of Ronald Reagan's celebrated question: "Are we better off than we were 40 years ago?" Materially yes, he answers, but morally no. Actually he's talking about something more than morality; he's talking about emotional hunger in an age of plenty.

You've only got to look at all the guff in the papers recently about how we need "qualified stress managers" to sort out our lives, to see the toll the modern workplace - or should that be work pace - is taking. Unlike the duke's generation, modern parents don't want their children out of the way - it's just that the requirements of the material world necessitate it. But the outcome could be the same.

The kids are exacting their revenge. Condemned to spend too much time on their own, doing homework or toying with expensive electronic gadgets, they fill their hours with reading subversive works like Harry Potter. The young wizard's wheezes are, of course, set in a boarding school. Talk to the parents of modern eight-year-olds and you will increasingly find that they are clamouring to be sent to the real-life equivalents of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry which validate, and indeed celebrate, the independence which the poor little rich kids have had forced upon them in their solitary computerised bedrooms.

They want to get their parents out of their hair, you see. I think that's a No 11 which has just appeared at the end of the street.

p.vallely@independent.co.uk

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