Terence Blacker: The simple truth about our children

Predictably enough, British parents emerge as dysfunctional in almost every way
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The Independent Online

The summer holidays are really beginning to bite now. Various novelty items in your life - sun, leisure, conversation, late lie-ins - are just beginning to pall, and the annual worries are closing in. These summertime blues hit parents particularly hard, giving them rather too much time to study their children and think about their little ones' progress in the world. Stress can get to the young, too. There are tantrums, food flies around the place, red faces and clenched little fists - and that's just the teenagers.

At other times in the year, problems can be blamed on teachers, exams, jealousy of peers, but now there is no escape. You are alone as a family, contentment is expected, and yet somehow no one is quite happy enough.

There has been no generation which has worried quite so much, and to so little effect, about how it is rearing its children. Every week, a new report is there to confirm parental guilt; every month another know-all expert in childhood behaviour steps forward to explain why early 21st-century mothers and fathers should be ashamed of themselves. It is all very well to blame a knowing, exploitative culture for the sustained assault on the idea of a sheltered, innocent childhood but, when it comes to the happiness thing, and its silent, miserable opposite, guilt begins at home.

The last few days have confirmed the bad news for parents. Those who are well-off and concerned turn out to be among the most dysfunctional mums and dads. They are, according to a new book, The Price of Privilege, by the American clinical psychologist Dr Madeline Levine, "helicopter parents", hovering over their offspring to ensure that at every turn that they have the facilities and the will to be bright little achievers. Seeing their children as emotional profit centres in which an investment of tutors, courses and pushy schools will yield a windfall of success in later life, these parents are, we learn, creating a generation that is incapable of looking after itself, of solving its own problems, of working out ideas of personal right and wrong.

Not only are privileged kids often doomed to fail, says Dr Levine, but they are also likely to be aware of how they fall short of their parents' expectations, and are therefore miserable. The sense of inadequacy kicks in around the age of six, apparently.

It gets worse. A group of concerned academics from York University have been comparing the contentment of British children to those in the other 24 countries of the EU. They have concluded that our children rate high, but only in the wrong charts. We are third in the list of 15-year-olds who have been drunk more than 20 times (27 per cent), fifth among 15-year-old cannabis-users (38 per cent), sixth in the rankings of the overweight young, and top in the teenage promiscuity charts. Rather sadly, under half of those between 11 and 15 regarded their friends as "kind and helpful".

Predictably enough, British parents emerge from the report as dysfunctional in almost every way. No families in Europe sit down to fewer meals together. Four out of 10 children claimed that they only spoke to their mother or father a few times a week. Taking all these miserable statistics together, the academics rank our children's general wellbeing in 21st position, with only the unhappy brats of Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania and Slovakia in a worse state.

It painted a sad picture of the children of Britain, the report's co-author Professor Jonathan Bradshaw has said. "They are marginalised socially and treated like second-class citizens." There have been calls, naturally enough, for the authorities to do something. Something called Civitas has denounced it as "a worrying indictment of Government policy".

Oh dear, here we go. Soon it will be "a raft of measures" from Westminster, a "children's tsar", parenting guidelines, leaflets through the letter-box, league tables, targets, Margaret Hodge bossing us all about as we try to eat our breakfasts. But before the allegation that the British are international leaders when it comes to duff parenting becomes an assumption of fact, it is perhaps worth remembering that children, like adults, have a sense of humour.

If a po-faced researcher asks them about their friends and their family, they might just give answers which amuse them. Only the most unenterprising of children will admit to a complete stranger that they chat cheerily every day to their parents over a family meal beautifully cooked by their father. They might just exaggerate the amount of cannabis they smoke, the number of times they have been drunk, perhaps even, perish the thought, bump up their sexual statistics.

If a few of our teenagers are a bit tubby, or rather silent, and not too choosy when it comes to dating practices, most will go through that phase. It is called growing up, and there is nothing particularly British about it. Remarkably few childhoods are idyllically happy, and those that are can often produce a restless, messed-up adult forever yearning for the lost, sunlit arcadia he or she enjoyed as a child.

Even during the summer holidays - especially during the summer holidays - children can be every bit as bored, resentful, difficult, moody and dissatisfied as the adults around them. The great discovery of August lies in a simpler truth than anything contained in a child-rearing guide or academic survey. It is that children are people.

terblacker@aol.com

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