Deborah Orr: It is not just sentimental nostalgia: all the evidence shows we are failing our children

The way forward is to allow women and men to find a way of combining work with family life
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The Independent Online

I remember my brother's fifth birthday with perfect clarity, because it was the first day that I, well into my ninth year, was allowed to take him out to play alone. We went to the swing park near the shops, far from the eye of my mother, and had a pleasantly uneventful time on a sunny spring day, doing very little at all beyond loving our freedom and our sense of self-determination

My own youngest child just turned five this summer, yet the idea of letting him out to play with his older brother, also well into his ninth year, seems simply ridiculous. Apart from anything else, my eight-year-old has no experience of playing out himself.

I tell myself that the huge gap in development that has emerged between my own childhood and that of my children, is because we live in London, because there are more cars, because there are more damaged older kids, because there are more drugs, and because there are more weapons. But even so, I know that my older son really ought to be getting out alone now. Sometimes I ask him to go and post a letter, or pop over to the shop for some milk or a paper - which is something else I remember being thrilled to do for the first time. He's not actually that keen, though, because he's so versed in the danger of "out there", that he's scared of his own neighbourhood.

I'm aware, of course, of all the ghastly stuff that happened to us when we played out - our stuff being nicked, the psychological and physical bullying that went on, the animal abuse that the really messed up children took delight in, the narrow escapes from paedophiles and the dangerous games in scrap yards, electrical sub-stations or on rail tracks.

Children did end up distressed or injured or maimed or dead from those risky activities, but none of us told our parents about them until the worst actually happened, because no matter how hairy it got, no matter how downright bloody awful it could sometimes be, the thought that our independent childish culture might stop, was utterly unbearable.

Now I'm a parent myself though, I'm well aware of how dark our experience-gathering as children sometimes became. I'm conscious too that the number of very damaged and disordered children "out there" with a propensity for creating chaos, is higher now than it was back then. This is not sentimental nostalgia. Behavioural problems in children have doubled in the last 30 years and emotional problems have increased by 70 per cent.

Risk-averse parenting, that hampers a child's ability to gain and learn from independent experience, is just one of many modern tendencies that Sue Palmer discusses in her recent and excellent book, Toxic Childhood. Palmer, a Scottish former headteacher, is the éminence grise behind the letter that appeared in yesterday's Daily Telegraph, signed by more than 100 concerned experts, and calling for a public debate on what was referred to as "a lack of both understanding, on the part of both politicians and the public, of the realities and subtleties of child development".

Really, though, there's not much need for a public debate - there's just a need for ideas already in existence to find a way out there. It's all in Palmer's book - the fruit of three years of wide-ranging research conducted by herself and two assistants. Her contentions and conclusions are, I believe, incontrovertible.

She pulls together many of the strands we perceive, in their various compartments, as being not very good for our children or the children of others, even though we are to lesser or greater degrees somewhat reluctant to tackle it all.

Poor diet and anti-social patterns of family eating, lack of outdoor exercise and constructive play, too much screen-based entertainment (especially unsupervised and in bedrooms), not enough sleep, too much exposure to marketing aimed at children and media aimed at adults (such as distressing images on the news, or adult-content websites), too little time available to stressed parents who too often take the path of least resistance in a highly commodified world. She also picks through the familiar and sometimes contradictory problems endemic in the education system.

All this, and more, Palmer argues, contribute to "toxic childhood" with the least economically, socially and culturally advantaged families having the most children and being least able to look after them in such demanding circumstances. They bear the brunt of the difficulties that the rapid incursion of modern technologies and the astonishing rate of change we experience as a society, and perpetuate its most challenging tendencies.

Though Palmer doesn't sound quite that judgemental. Unlike Jamie Oliver, whose school lunch campaign she fulsomely praises in Toxic Childhood, Palmer is not in the business of telling parents they are "arseholes and tossers" (although one sympathises heartily with the frustrations that have prompted Oliver to lose his patience). She is careful to stress that toxic childhood is not a problem that parents can be expected to tackle alone, because a complex array of different challenges, responsibilities and temptations have resulted in a situation in which "our culture has evolved faster than our biology".

On the contrary, in fact, she's painfully aware that those most in need of her practical, sensible and eminently attainable advice on how to detoxify a childhood are the least likely of all to be reading her book. At the end of each chapter, she includes a section called "mind the gap" which discusses in particular the situation among the most disadvantaged, which - of course - is absolutely dire and causes such an appalling knock-on effect in our schools, our streets and in our criminal justice system.

"Liberal thinkers consider it politically incorrect to interfere in the lives of the poor; laissez-faire libertarians prefer to wait until deprived children are adults, then lock up the troublemakers." Palmer warns. "If for no other reason than enlightened self-interest, it seems to me we have to notice this widening gap and take measures to close it. Just detoxing our own children's lives isn't enough."

There are some encouraging signs. Tony Blair may have been blasted with the usual chorus of disapproval from the "liberal thinkers" and the "laissez-faire libertarians" when he spoke of the need to intervene in the lives of the most disadvantaged from birth. But at least this issue remains on the political agenda.

Ruth Kelly's adoption of virtually all of the recommendations from the Women and Work Foundation this week, particularly concerning the promotion of part-time work for parents, is finally, exactly, what's been needed from this government all along. Palmer is convinced that the way forward is to allow women and men to find a way of combining work with family life. Kelly may have fallen back on the old argument that we should promote part-time work because it's economically, not culturally, productive. But it's a start.