Man's inhumanity to child

Cruelty to children is rife, says Theodore Dalrymple. Sometimes it is brutal, sometimes it is `loving'

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There are many different ways to bring up children badly, and the British seem to be expert in all of them. The first and most dramatic way, of course, is outright cruelty. The NSPCC last week launched a publicity campaign to draw the attention of the public yet again to Man's inhumanity to Child. The campaign uses shock tactics, confronting the viewer with graphic evidence of the frightful acts that are committed daily - hourly - in every city in the country. Whether the methods employed will do anything to prevent such cruelty may be doubted, but no one should comfort himself that the NSPCC exaggerates.

I might have thought so once, but no longer. In my work as an inner-city doctor, I have seen the most tangible possible evidence of an elaborate torture chamber set up by parents to inflict pain on their children over a prolonged period. There were pulleys and ropes by which they were hauled naked upside-down towards the ceiling, and beaten and raped repeatedly. The neighbours knew nothing, or if they knew something, did nothing. An Englishman's home, it seems, is his torture chamber.

Such a case might be dismissed as an aberration such as is bound occasionally to occur in a population as large as ours. Alas, this is not so. My patients tell me daily of the treatment they received as children, and of the things they continue to witness around them. For example, a patient from a housing estate recently told me he had seen his next-door neighbour regularly suspending his young daughter upside-down in a hole dug in the garden specially for this purpose. Needless to say he called no one's attention to the abominable conduct of his neighbour: so feeble is law enforcement, and so strong the atmosphere of intimidation on such estates that, just as in prison, the worse thing to be in them is a "grass", for then life is made even more intolerable for you than it already is. It is hardly surprising that in such an environment cruelties that would make a Nero go weak at the knees are practised without restraint, embarrassment or compunction.

Every day I meet people who, earlier in their lives, were beaten unmercifully, locked in cupboards, tied to beds, scalded deliberately with hot water, and even permanently maimed by the vicious adults who brought them up. There is no doubt that the extreme fluidity of personal relationships nowadays favours such treatment which, incidentally, rarely comes to the attention of anyone, or - if it does - is rarely taken with any great seriousness.

This cruelty is all the more depressing because there is no reason to suppose that prosperity will automatically eliminate it. And perhaps even more revealing of the terrible attitude to children that prevails in this country is the expulsion of a child from home at the age of 14 or 15 (more or less to fend for itself) because the mother has taken up with a new boyfriend who does not like the child, or at least finds its presence an encumbrance. He issues an ultimatum to the mother: either the child goes or I go. It is the boyfriend who wins: and this is a story I myself hear about 50 times a year.

Such total indifference to the welfare of one's own offspring is very widespread; indeed I have come to expect it. In the statistical sense of the word, it is normal.

The incompetence of even well-disposed British parents is sometimes staggering. Quite often they come to me to express their puzzlement that their son has turned out so badly: that he truants from school, is aggressive and destructive, burgles, takes drugs and joyrides at night. Almost without fail, they say, "We gave him everything."

I ask them what they mean by everything, and the crudity of their conception still takes my breath away. By everything they mean a video machine in his bedroom, a mountain bike and - above all - the latest fashionable designer trainers. Although not rich, they tell me proudly, they have recently bought young Darren a pair for pounds 140. And yet he still stole money from his stepfather, whom he has also threatened to batter! It is to them incomprehensible. What more could the boy have wanted from life?

They will, of course, have devoted virtually no time to him. They do not know that he can scarcely read, for they take no interest in such matters and the British educational system - itself a publicly funded form of child abuse, at least in poor areas - will not have alerted them to it, as it expects no better from Darren. They eat no meals together and have little in the way of personal contact with him. (I am alarmed at how little evidence I see in the British homes I enter either of attempts at cooking, by contrast with the reheating of prepared foods, or of meals taken together. In millions of such homes, I suspect, meals are poor, solitary, nasty, brutish and short. Moreover, they are not eaten at table but gulped down in front of the ever-illuminated television, as and when the whim strikes.) Young Darren, therefore, is left to fend for himself in the MTV-Nike Trainers culture, a culture that leaves him physically provided for, and therefore physically vigorous, but mentally, emotionally and spiritually more impoverished than the average African peasant.

A survey published last week by researchers at the London School of Economics confirms that there is a trend to materialistic solipsism among British children, and not just those of the underprivileged. Indeed, the trend is most marked in the middle classes. Many parents have become so afraid of the horrors of the outside world on their children's behalf that they seek to turn their bedrooms into self-sufficient worlds from which dangerous venturing forth is unnecessary. By the age of 6 or 7, half of British children have a television in their own bedroom, a percentage considerably greater than that of any other European nation.

Fear of the outside world - surely fed by representations of it on the very television that is supposed to be a substitute for it - is, of course, only one of the motives for such parental largesse towards children. Television is a kind of latter-day laudanum, or Infant Quietness as it was known in the 19th century. Put a child in front of the television and you can then get on with your life, uninterrupted by his incessant demands for attention.

To fill a child's bedroom with expensive electronic paraphernalia is both an expression of love and sacrifice, and an easy substitute for it. As every prosperous person knows, time is more precious than money, for it cannot be bought or expanded. The allocation of time really is a zero- sum game. To spend time with children, therefore, and laboriously to ensure that they have social activities of the right kind, is a truer expression of love than any material gift can ever be. The trouble is that we don't really love our children - a fact that is obvious when you compare a restaurant in England with one in Italy.

Moreover, the trend to materialistic solipsism is a self-reinforcing one. The more we express our supposed love for, or at least duty towards, our children by means of purchases of technological gadgets for their bedrooms, the more they will demand the latest and the best. Where gifts are proof of love, only a continued supply can reassure the child that he is still loved. And in so far as he has any social contacts at all, they will consist of anxious comparisons of gifts received.

Of course, millions of children are still brought up well by their parents, and in the modern world it is essential that children be familiar with the computer. We cannot just imitate a mythologised past in the way we rear the next generation.

Nevertheless, the trend towards the replacement of activity and engagement with the world by the passive absorption of entertainment has gone further in this country than in other comparable ones, no doubt because of a traditional indifference to children and a willingness, even eagerness, to palm them off. We are a nation that neglects its children, disguising this from ourselves by expenditure upon them.

A taste for passive entertainment is the greatest cause of boredom, because when the entertainment ends - as sometimes it must - the world is found wanting by comparison with it. If you live in a mental world of car chases, a bus ride is intolerably tedious, to say nothing of the mastery of strenuous skills. Thus the way we treat our children is to prepare them for a life of lethargy, discontent and dissatisfaction, but if the truth be told we don't really care, so long as they don't disturb us. As Marie Antoinette would have put it, if told the children were bored and unloved: let them watch TV.

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