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Sue Palmer: How we forgot the art of child rearing

While chatting recently with teachers in the Netherlands, I mentioned that many British children now start learning the 3Rs when they've just turned four. The women teachers' faces contorted with horror. "But that's cruel", they said. "They should be playing out in the sunshine." Their headteacher burst out laughing. "Over here on the mainland, we think you Anglo-Saxons are mad," he said.

Today's report from Unicef suggests he might be right. It seems that as a nation, we've lost it as far as child rearing goes. A country that gives so little attention to its children's well-being shouldn't be surprised that its teenagers were recently found to be the worst behaved in Europe, or that its prisons are filled to bursting point. Over the past 20 years of tremendous social and cultural change, we seem to have concentrated on the needs of the economy at the expense of the families it is supposed to be serving.

A lot of that is probably due to the deeply competitive nature of the Anglo-Saxons (and, indeed, other inhabitants of these isles). As well as making us one of the most successful countries in terms of wealth, it means we're not particularly good with children. They get in the way of work.

Driven by new technology operating at electric speed, our work/life balance has spun out of control. The Government has therefore cobbled together a system of "childcare on the cheap", cramming babies in institutions and four-year-olds into school.

What's more, as mothers streamed out of homes and into the workplace, a great deal of knowledge about child-rearing was lost. We lost track of the importance for children of real food, first-hand experience of the world, play outdoors with friends, and the time and attention of their parents.

We've forgotten that child rearing is collaborative - that "it takes a village to raise a child". In our competitive frenzy, we've turned childhood and education into a race.

The report is a wake-up call to parents and politicians. We have to stop the madness and start attending to the well-being of all our children. Unless we stop competing so frenziedly and start collaborating, we may find the next generation isn't bright or balanced enough to keep the UK economic show on the road.

The paperback of Sue Palmer's 'Toxic Childhood: How Modern Life Is Damaging Our Children... And What We Can Do About It' (Orion £7.99) is out tomorrow