ARACY Conference September, 2009
We need a New Deal for children
What’s the problem?
I think many adults - politicians, parents and public – are confused about children today. And that confusion leaves change to chance, many children doomed to fall behind in the race to become adequate human beings. It’s time for a ‘New Deal’ for all children.
Adults drool over baby pictures, despair over howling babies and recalcitrant kids, allow children to dress and behave like little whores, yet deplore the drunkenness, violence and premature sexuality of young teens.
In the UK recently, one school stopped any parent from attending the school sports day because it could not guarantee that an unsupervised adult might not molest a child – the child as victim.
Another specialist music school warned teachers against having any personal interaction with their students, because “adolescents may be unable to differentiate between fantasy and reality. They may even be temporarily insane. They can thus present a danger to even the most careful teacher.” – the child as wild animal.
In stark contrast, a National Health Service report on teenagers carried the slogan “an orgasm a day keeps the doctor away”, claiming that regular sex would relax them and improve school performance. No-one told me that when I was at High School – we all thought masturbation would make you blind. No wonder parents are confused about children.
Australia remains 27th out of 43 developed countries on the Save the Children Fund children’s health and wellbeing index; the OECD finds we have among the lowest paid child-care and pre-school staff in the world (and one of the lowest access rates, at 61.5%). Worse, we have 383,000 jobless one-parent families and 213,000 jobless two-parent families, leaving one in every eight of our children to an inter-generational legacy outside the labor force – and, if predictions are correct, there will be many more. Small wonder that the recent State of the World’s Mothers report claims an alarming number of children are at risk of failure in school because they are not getting the care and support they need in their early years.
We have heard much about the vital importance of the years from birth to age three for proper brain development: the infinite flexibility of the brain’s synapses, the value of exploratory play in testing life’s hypotheses, the importance of a rich and stimulating environment in those early years. So we have children being ‘hot-housed’ by their mothers, a whole industry of ‘child Einstein’ tapes and DVDs, playing Mozart to the womb. Yet our education policies barely mention how parents and communities might nurture the brains of children by surrounding them with imaginative, safe and stimulating neighborhoods or about how urban design might play into a child’s thinking and development process.
In Australia, we have a so-called ‘Education Revolution’ which is disconnected from the greatest educator of all – the mass media. What children learn is clearly affected by the media, yet educators often fail to see this and regard television, computer games, ipods as mere entertainment, of no value to the learning process, more likely harmful than helpful. But how children learn is affected by the media and teachers face a real revolution in the child’s growing ability to learn in their own way at their own time.
We even have a new National Curriculum Framework for Early Childhood (0-5) addressed to formal teaching staff, not to parents whose interventions at home in those early years are crucial for proper brain development, and barely paying lip-service to quality media content for children and the way new technologies hold out hope for more effective learning.
We have a dogmatic insistence on testing children when the research tells us that testing narrows the curriculum and reinforces family-based disadvantage.
Schools are increasingly divided between those launching the lucky child into a success orbit and those merely in a holding pattern with little hope of ever taking off.
And now we have Alan Milburn from the UK touting ‘pushy parents’ as the answer instead of a stimulating community environment and a concerted effort across the board to encourage the intelligences of every child.
Children are not simply fodder for later productivity, to be trained in the skills we will demand of them when we grow old; they are not simply engine parts for a changing economy. If we insist too much that the goal of parenting and teaching is to produce competent adults, the implication is that children are incompetent. We devalue their skills and competencies as they are now with a future ‘productivity’ goal in mind. And we devalue the experience of childhood itself, falling into the language of investment, future productivity and preparation for adulthood rather than meeting children’s needs as they are in the present.
That does not mean, however, that we can shirk ‘preparation’ as a goal; the future they face is different and education must always lead them towards the skills they will need to be capable citizens able to adjust to rapid change and serve the economic and social purposes of society – it would be naïve to think otherwise.
It’s not just in education that confusion reigns. There is also much
We have a vast complex of separate, categorical ‘services’ delivered top-down to children and families rather than a coordinated attempt to resource families and communities so that every child has access to the resources necessary for full development of their learning potential.
We focus on changing faulty or unsafe parenting behavior rather than teaching parents about childhood development and creating a context in which doing better as a parent is easier. A child-friendly community should be the goal, not just kind and helpful, or even ‘pushy’, parents.
We pour millions of dollars into one-on-one professional interventions and unevaluated ‘child protection’ services when we know it’s impossible to have enough dollars to cover every problem. Even the language of prevention diverts us from the real aim of providing the best possible conditions for positive child development.
Why such mixed messages?
We are confused because the place of children in society has shifted under our feet. That shift is not simply a shift in values, it is driven by demographic, economic and social changes. We need to rethink the structures and processes we use in dealing with children if we are to effect real change.
Remember when Maggie Thatcher asserted there was no such thing as society? Unfortunately the claim stuck and we have been assailed by the repeated mantra of individual responsibility, freedom of choice, the rights of the individual, the so-called free market and the central goal of achieving personal happiness. And it’s not just the corporate or financial world that pushes this ethos; it has permeated our discussion of ethics, social policy, education and family life. Psychology has triumphed over sociology and most people have no idea of the structural limits to their own freedom. If you fail, you have to blame yourself.
We have effectively privatized the family and the task of parenting, despite the fact that modern society out-sources many of the tasks of raising children. The sociology of childhood has been lost, a trend which de-contextualises and de-politicises the process and makes the privatized family the cause of failure instead of a community which should share responsibility for the raising of future generations.
Demographically, parents and children are a shrinking minority in the developed world and they feel under attack. Parents are in general older, have chosen to have fewer children, value them highly and lavish them with every possible advantage, desperately trying to be the ideal friendly parent raising perfect children on their own.
The dividing lines between parent and adult have become blurred and there is a lack of confidence in being a good parent. As a result (helped along by the new media) the family itself becomes atomized, no longer a unit of shared responsibilities within the context of wider community values.
This privatized family world is circumscribed by two other forces affecting our values.
First, the world of economic rationalism with its values of commercial greed and consumerism puts company profits and the individual first rather than communal belonging and well-being. Self-gratification and sleaze dominate advertising. Commercial television discovered children were a vast new market and it didn’t take long for public broadcasters like the ABC to become as commercial as their competitors. Happiness seems to be defined by what you own, not what you do. Children are now segmented into babies, toddlers, pre-teens, tweens and teenagers, all primed to buy food, toys, clothing and goods targeted carefully at them. Their parents are confused about what is quality children’s television, whether computer games are dangerous and whether they can do anything about it all anyway. And teachers lag behind their pupils in understanding the power and value of the new media at their disposal.
Second, such media-driven values set norms of behavior for a growing group of young adults living a life of self-exploration and excitement that makes them indifferent, even hostile, to the needs of children and their parents but makes them a model for the life to which younger children aspire.
This group of Solos does not identify with the mantra ‘Children are our future’ and often resent what they see as the favoritism of family-friendly workplace programs or family-oriented tax breaks. For them the present is what matters and gloomy predictions of environmental or economic catastrophe simply confirm their view that children have no future anyway, so enjoy life while you can.
Children are thus sexualized earlier, ape the clothing and manners of the Solos, and resent being held back by parents fearful for their wellbeing. Grown-ups are, in turn, frightened by this new breed and moral panics about drinking, drugs and sex produce knee-jerk policy responses.
The key to ensuring the wellbeing of all children is to surround families from every side, show them how to nurture the best in children as partners in the learning process and ensure each community has the resources necessary to produce the best outcomes for all children.
The problem is, neither our schools nor our service systems are aimed at providing those conditions, or at reducing inequality, just at patching up the damage caused by it.
Part of the solution is more equitable incomes. But it will also require policies that foster people’s ‘capabilities to live meaningful lives’, no matter what their family origins. That means universal provision of parental leave, quality child care, quality children’s media programs, the best schools we can provide and, of course, access to quality health and parent support services. Given that from birth to age five, 85% of the brain’s core is shaped, the conditions for healthy development have to be in place.
So what can be done to change the way children are valued?
First, we need to change the way we think about children. They are not just a private, family matter. What happens to them in early childhood, at school, in the community, how they are affected by the workplace, the media, the society at large is of vital importance to everyone, not only their parents.
We need a new archetype of childhood. It has to be along the lines of children as a new but special minority, as real people, with real brains, real emotions, real human needs that should be given room for expression; of young people as competent, powerful, determined, even nasty and in need of firm guidelines for conduct as citizens of the world.
Today’s children are not innocents, not passive victims in need of protection. The majority of them are active, aware, sophisticated learners often ahead of their parents and teachers, exposed to much that was previously seen as adult knowledge, and they are much more capable than many give them credit for. We have to stop talking down to them, both in language and expectations.
Perhaps we should drop the myth of innocence and teach children resilience, because the world they face will demand it. We should allow them to be the decision-makers they are capable of being in their own right. As my 5 year old grandson put it, after I’d been busily explaining some topic to him, “Yes, Don, I know that. You’re not the only one that knows something.” Moreover, if children have rights, then they have responsibilities too, just as have adults. But talk of children’s rights is seen as another threat to adult power.
Second, we need a new partnership, community-based model of childhood. It may sound cute to talk about developing a ‘child-friendly’ community, but the reverse is what we have at present – an unfriendly one. Urban planning is capable of designing much better housing estates: the return of the backyard or strip park, or small vacant lot playgrounds in local neighborhoods could be mandated; we need car-free streets, shady trees, linked walking paths and safe public transport.
Learning of course takes place from the moment of birth and is affected by every element of the child’s environment. So we need to stop the top-down delivery of services and create what I call ‘Children’s Resource Zones’, neighborhood-sensitive areas where every facility, every service, every effort is focused on drawing children and parents into the learning and development process.
If you doubt such a model could work, read about Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone, recently evaluated in a five-year study by Harvard University. Recognizing the new brain research on the importance of early childhood, this Zone did away with piecemeal reform efforts and linked in a coordinated way parenting classes, pre-kindergarten classes of high quality, special tutoring, dance and sport classes, food co-ops, social services, and help with housing and health.
The aim was not just to ‘prevent’ problems, but to transform the lives of the next generation. This combination of community transformation, high-quality teaching and parental support has raised children’s achievement levels and closed the racial gap in performance by transforming the way parents see their children’s life chances. The Children’s Zone approach starts where it matters most – with the plasticity of babies’ brains - and is trying to recreate, in homes and in the community, what prosperous children already get – sustained care and concern over a lifetime.
Unlike other piecemeal measures like Headstart or SureStart, the Children’s Zone starts with, but does not stop at early childhood after a couple of years’ effort; it provides continuity through the education system, sustaining the family involvement and resourcing approach.
For me, that means our schools should be community centres, the core of resourcing families in the cause of better child development and learning. Schools would become ‘Family Learning Centres’, or what the Victorian Catholic Education Office calls ‘Schools as Core Social Centres’, not just places where children go for a few hours a day and where learning is defined as what the teachers do with them. George Otero of the New Mexico-based Centre for Relational Learning argues for a complete change in the relationship between teacher and learner, and Professor John West-Burnham of Manchester University’s Centre for Educational Leadership insists leadership must shift from a top-down approach to one that engages people at every level of decision-making, including children.
Every school should be a source of information and learning for children and their parents; even what we now call adult education could be more closely linked with the schools and the needs of local families.
If the schools were to become Family Learning Centres, the full range of family support services and resources would be centred round them. Indeed, we must replace the mania of ‘servicing’ families with the concept of ‘resourcing’ them so they can draw on a range of information, physical resources and specialist services as they require them, preferably integrated within neighborhood hubs and ‘Children’s Resource Zones’ focused on networks of schools and linked services rather than narrowly targeted, run by separate arms of government and private agencies which never talk to one another.
In the State of Victoria, we have moved some way towards this model of integration. Early childhood has been integrated into the education system, schools are becoming hubs for family and children’s services, with co-location and encouragement of inter-service cooperation. The annual report on The State of Victoria’s Children enables better planning at the local level, with child outcomes data that can be matched to resources, services and other local initiatives. Every local government is required to draw up a Municipal Early Years Plan and soon will be involved in developing Vulnerable Youth Action Plans aimed at involving young people directly in pinpointing local issues and being active participants in how to respond.
But above all, they need positive, meaningful relationships with others, a stake in what they do with others rather than a passive role in being ‘treated’, ‘serviced’ or ‘protected’ from harm. Our language must become positive, not simply preventative, and change must come from within the community, not top-down from those who think they know best.
Fortunately, both state and federal governments are moving towards a whole-of-government approach to educating and caring for children and families. Children’s hubs, integration of services around schools, the UNICEF-inspired Child-Friendly City movement, the constant reminders from Richard Eckersley, the Australia Institute and others that wellbeing and happiness do not stem from money alone, and the current attempts to have Australia emulate the Canadian Index of Wellbeing, all point in a more positive direction.
My fear is that the power of the consumer market, plus the increasingly minority status of children and parents, will overwhelm initiatives such as the Australian National Development Index unless there is a clearer political stance on the value of childhood.
That is why policies about media and communication must be updated. We need updated standards for quality children’s television, computer games and new media programs and communication policy should be seen as integral to the education revolution, not as separate from it. The ABC and ACMA must be made accountable to our national curriculum framework so the media serve the true needs of today’s children.
Those working for children have to come together with agreed values, within a coherent, co-ordinated framework, not in an ineffective, fragmented way as at present. Above all, a more active, political philosophy is needed, one which asserts that every child has the capacity and the right to learn to the optimum of their ability.
A whole-of-government children’s policy is needed, not piecemeal actions by separate departments. Child policy as an afterthought is no longer acceptable.
A whole New Deal is needed for our children.
Sharon Bessell (2007), Adult Attitudes towards Children’s Participation in the Phillipines, Australian National University, Crawford School of Economics and Government
Canadian Index of Wellbeing, Foundational Document (2007), Canada
Department of Prime Minister & Cabinet (2009), An Australian National Development Index, Canberra
Richard Eckersley (2008), Young people’s health and wellbeing: 20 years of policy failure? , ABC News Online, 26 September 2008
Don & Patricia Edgar (2008), The New Child: In search of smarter grown-ups, Wilkinson Publishing, Melbourne
Patricia & Don Edgar (2009), Young children and new media technology, Discussion Paper for Victorian Curriculum Authority
Patricia Edgar (2009), ‘From children to profit centres’, paper for ShowCommotion Children’s Media Conference, Sheffield, UK, 1-3 July
Rebecca Shaw & M. R. Kilburn (eds.) (2008), Preventing Child Abuse and Neglect in the United States, Working Paper, Rand Corporation
Suzanne Moore (2008), ‘A New Deal is needed for kids’, New Statesman, London, 3 July
Amartya Sen (1999), ‘Democracy as a universal value’, in Journal of Democracy, vol. 10, no. 3, pp. 3-17
UNESCO (2009), Measuring the Progress of Societies, Bangkok
Trond Waage (2005), Modern Childhood – the Image of the Child in our Society: The Seventh Kilbrandon Lecture, www.scotland.gov.uk/Publications
Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett (2009), The Spirit Level: Why more equal societies almost always do better, Allen Lane/Penguin, London
Wendy Zukerman (13 May, 2009), ‘Blessed are the childless’, The Australian, Higher Education, p. 47
What if we said:
Kids don’t need protecting, they need exposure to the realities of the world and education in how to cope with those realities.
Kids don’t need just love and nurturing, they need guidance and limit-setting.
Kids don’t need time to just be themselves, they need experiences that teach them who and what they might become.
Kids don’t need praise for being ‘smart’, they need encouragement to further effort and how to achieve more.
Nor do kids need ‘self-esteem’, they need a sense of competence based on actual achievement.
Kids don’t need just literacy and numeracy, they need the skills required to make the world an ecologically sustainable place in which equality is the goal of every policy and program.
Kids need the chance to develop every aspect of their potential intelligence to discover their unique strengths and weaknesses.
Kids don’t need to be valued simply in their own right, but valued as future citizens who will have to make tricky decisions affecting everyone.