Maureen Freely: Time to put children first, Mr Brown

'Father-to-be Brown should wipe that smile off his face. Four years of fine words haven't created a child-friendly nation'
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The Independent Online

You wouldn't know it from the way he handles the economy. But now at last we have indisputable proof. Our Chancellor has balls. In a few months, he is to become a father. It would be unfair, I think, to deride him for taking such a long time to get round to it. He is, after all, a man who values prudence. He has never knowingly taken a step without doing years of groundwork first. And since marching into Number 11 he's done an awful lot to make this country the sort of country he'd want a child of his to grow up in.

Actually, this began even before he became Chancellor. As far back as the mid-1990s, he was telling anyone who would listen that children were our most valuable resource and that childcare was an economic issue. It was a position he took care to back up with serious facts and figures. It has to be said that he got most of these from Harriet Harman and a number of other invisible others. It could also be said that our Gordon took a bit too much credit for work that was not entirely his. But still, he deserves a great deal of credit for giving the argument credibility. And even more credit for ploughing serious money into the National Childcare Strategy.

And that's not all he's done. He's been waging a tireless, though sometimes toothless, war on child poverty. He would be the first to admit that there is much more work to be done. But at least he's won the intellectual argument. We must do more to give British children the best possible start in life. It's partly thanks to Gordon that this fine sentiment has become a national article of faith.

And oh, before I forget, we must also thank him for the teeny tiny increases to maternity benefit, and the teenier tinier concessions to fathers. But after that, it's time for Father-to-be Brown to wipe that smile off his face. Four years of fine lip-service have not turned us into a child-friendly nation. We are, without doubt, the most child-hating nation in the world. We are one of the few countries in Northern Europe where smacking children is not against the law.

We are also the only country I have ever visited in which you routinely see signs in shops and other public places reminding you that you are expected to keep your children "under control".

It's a theme running right through Supporting Families, the policy document in which the Government sets out its plans for giving all British children the "best possible start". It's been heralded as the most child-friendly package this country has ever seen. Knowing our long tradition of child-hating, this claim could well be true. But it still makes for depressing reading. It discusses child-rearing as if it's something best left to the territorial army. It's all about training and standards, the inculcation of the right values, and the importance of discipline.

One thing it's not about is a fair deal for the millions who devote their lives to British children. I am talking here not just about parents and grandparents, but also childminders and nannies and nursery nurses and teachers. Ask any one of us – we are not respected for the work we do. When we are paid, it is almost always at the bottom of the pay scale. When we work for nothing, we are "not really working". The people who actually do the caring and nurturing and educating of our "most valuable resource" are the people we value least. What does this say about us? More to the point, what does this do to us, as children, as adults, as human beings?

A friend who just came back from Italy told me how puzzled he was by the peace on Italian beaches. Eventually, he worked it out. Italian parents did not shout at children. There followed, he said, the inevitable flashback to summers in Cornwall, the endless barrage of "Get over here, you brat!" and "I'm not taking any lip from you". You can hear variations of the above on any bus or supermarket. Brusque contempt is still the norm when British adults speak to children. Even if you don't practice it yourself, you get so used to hearing it that you hardly hear it at all. Until you go abroad.

In Turkey, where I am right now, children are welcome everywhere they go. My daughters can expect to meet adults who want to talk to them, who take an interest in what they say. Who even want to play with them. Who are there to help them if something goes wrong. Every year, when we pack our bags and return to England, I watch my daughters go through the bends. For the first few hours, they smile at strangers expecting to get the sort of friendly interest to which they've become accustomed. But – 99 per cent of the time – all they get back is an affronted stare.

And God forbid they should disturb the peace in a pool where an adult is doing lengths. Or a train compartment where there's an adult who was hoping to read. Even if there's a sign assuring you that children are welcome, there will always be someone who makes it clear that they are not.

There are times when I wonder if we aren't even worse than the Victorians. Then, at least, children had the option of playing outside. Now, if they so much as throw a ball or loiter for two seconds on a street corner, they're causing a nuisance. They should be at home, under lock, key and control. They should be neither seen nor heard. Their place is in the ghetto.

But here, at least, the thinking is shifting. Foreign travel has put ideas in parents' heads. Children who remember being treated like human beings in Spain when they were five, will want their own children to enjoy the same privilege, and not just on the beach. Restaurants that barely tolerated children 10 years ago, now offer children's menus. When children act like children while ordering those menus, maître d's are less likely to faint.

Schools now spare the rod. As do most parents. It's only a matter of time before smacking ceases to be an acceptable alternative, before fear-based childcare gives way to systems based on clear and reasonable limits and mutual respect. As they say in NewLabourSpeak, the culture is changing. But in a country where the hatred of children is as deep-seated as it is here, it's not enough. We might be treating children more kindly in the ghetto, but we're still not listening to them when they move outside it.

In fact, children almost never speak in public. Why should they waste time answering questions no one's bothered to ask? We should be including children's voices in public discussions that will impact on their lives. There are international conventions that make this obligation clear. In practice, and in spite of the importance we give child protection, it's not really happening. The cultural bias against children is too great. It's not going to shift unless an important politician, a man with balls, says it must be shifted.

So, Gordon, are you listening? If you say the right thing, our old agreement stands. We won't say a thing when you take all the credit.

mfreely@rosebud.u-net.com

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