I am infuriated by our treatment of children

One third of women interviewed said children had made their lives less happy than before and than they had expected
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The Independent Online

Will Margaret Hodge be the Children's minister this time next week? I devoutly hope not. Cold-blooded, narcissistic and blatantly insincere, she is not fit for this vital portfolio. Ironically, the controversy raised again this week over her miserable handling of the child abuse scandal in Islington did show the absolute need for an effective ministerial advocate for children. By creating the post (which one day, hopefully, will be elevated to a full department with a worthy secretary of state, perhaps the impressive Harriet Harman), Tony Blair has moved our nation towards a collective recognition that British children deserve better. Not before time.

Now I don't want to sound like Radio 4's You and Yours, which gives us hours of woe and worry about just how perilous our lives are in this immensely rich and fortunate country. Unlike two thirds of the world, our children generally do not die of starvation, minor illnesses, cold and waterborne diseases. They have access to education and state help and they don't live with wars, terror and bloodshed.

Middle-class British children have a surfeit of goods, activities and opportunities. Many men have become exemplary, involved parents for the first time in our history, women are moving towards a better work/life balance, and children's voices are now actively sought for their views - from GM crops to George W Bush.

But in terms of our own ideals, or in comparison with countries that truly champion the rights of children, the old clichés still ring true: we don't treat children well enough. We must get more enraged and engaged, to eliminate child poverty, cruelty, neglect, and to challenge the corruption of childhood - which brazenly walks in where angels now must truly fear to tread.

That impoverished children have no future is the message delivered to us in a series of advertisements put out by Barnardo's, the children's charity, just as the annual Christmas affluenza begins to spread. Still covered in protective fluids, new-born baby Greg has a large cockroach, with long antennae, emerging from his bawling mouth. Little Mary, a few hours old too, is sucking on a syringe, and Amy, just delivered, is consoling herself with a meths bottle. Barnardo's obviously hopes to zap open the conscience of Britain, which is no longer that affected by crying, dirty little faces plaintively, silently begging for our attention. It is telling that people of tender sensibilities have complained to the Advertising Standards Authority about the images.

Last year I decided that it wasn't enough simply to talk about or send cheques to disadvantaged children, both painless responses. I became a volunteer for Friends United Network (Fun) north London - an extraordinary organisation 20 years old next week - which trains adults who are willing to give a little time to become a trusted friend to a selected child. What I have learnt in a year, what this friendship has given me, what lies out there cannot be described.

There are, however, more intractable problems, an even deeper pathology in the culture which needs to be addressed. The Barnardo's posters say: "There are no silver spoons for children born into poverty." But what of the neglect and tangible aversion faced by children who are born with silver spoons or, more likely, a stainless steel one designed by some happening arty type, ever so popular at Notting Hill baby showers? The Lever Fabergé Family Report 2003 examines parental attitudes towards their children and the results are infuriating. A survey of 1,500 Britons between 20 and 40 were questioned about their feelings towards their children. One third of the women interviewed - I repeat, one third - said children had made their lives less happy than before and than they had expected. Professional women bemoaned the passing of their perfect lifestyles (whatever that means) and 17 per cent of men said their jobs make them happier than their children.

There are other reports that periodically assess the disadvantages of child-rearing and the costs of this foolish adventure, which takes away your holidays, sleep, wealth, shapely body, unhindered pursuit of self-interest and much else. A Cabinet Office study found a working mother with two children can lose £140,000 over a lifetime. In their provocative book What Are Children For? the broadcaster and sociologist Laurie Taylor and his son Matthew argue that in the modern age having children is "counter-intuitive", going against the dominant values of materialism, individualism, autonomy and instrumentalism.

We choose to have children in the West. A survey two years ago found that 24 per cent of women interviewed didn't want children because they were focused on their careers. Fine. They are to be admired. At least they don't mess up their lives and harbour resentments against their young.

Of course, children are endless trouble. From the minute they are born, parents find a new, constant fear ticking away, an extra beat in their hearts. You can't do half the things you once did, and endless exhaustion drags you down. Careers can and do suffer, especially as we now live in a US-style workaholic society. Sometimes, in fact often, children betray your love, fail to repay or appreciate the care you give them, ask for too much money. But how do you put a cost on your child? What kind of nation believes that this is how you measure the pain and pleasure of parenthood and ultimate love?

We tried the costs/benefits exercise this morning. How much do we spend on our daughter on food (10 per cent of the Waitrose bill? Or is it 10.4 per cent when she is greedy for extra tropical juice and special anchovies which she loves?), on her clothes, school, friends, outings, the time we spend with her on her work? I charge hundreds of pounds an hour when I speak at conferences. Do I calculate my charges on that basis? Rubbish, isn't it? Nurturing my children, caring, teaching, watching, creating a decent human being slowly and through many obstacles has been a priceless experience. I made all the sacrifices freely and they were worth it.

Such discourse only tells British children that they are a nuisance or worse. One in 10 children ends up with a mental disorder. Surely it is now our inescapable duty to take action against these attitudes and all the other assaults on the sanity and well-being of children. These include the crass television programmes made by people who do not care what they are doing to future generations, to the eruption in child porn delivered every day to computers, smacking and abuse, divorces chosen for the flimsiest of reasons without any consideration for the feelings of children, the descent into new depths of popular culture, drugs, booze, cigarettes, the merchandising of bad food and undesirable objects and images to kids, the hopelessly inadequate time spent by parents with their offspring (myself included), and the way things are substituted for this invaluable contact which is all too soon gone.

To lead us to battle against these terrifyingly powerful forces, we will need a credible, more inspiring Children's minister. And no, that cannot possibly be Mrs Hodge of Islington.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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