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Children of the new universe need a real education revolution

Patricia Edgar published in The Age September 1, 2008

Almost every day the media report disastrous stories about kids who are out of control, too fat, too sexy, disrespectful, too full of themselves for their own good, with parents and teachers concerned about their children's future

Who is this new child? And how do we raise children to be intelligent, optimistic and confident of their own abilities, without turning them into self-centred, arrogant little individuals are not concerned with the wider  common good,

Children are now a minority group.  Most start life with two loving parents, but one in five lives in a one-parent family and one in four will spend at least part of their life in such an arrangement.  The new child has older parents, generally both working, who want to be their friends rather than wise elders or authority figures.  There are fewer siblings so family life involves more adult-talk, adult-see, adult-copy as the gap between generations recedes.

Because of a declining birth rate there are fewer peers around and more time is spent alone or in arms-length relationships with virtual friends.  The new child spends up to seven hours a day on computers, mobile phones, Ipods and interactive gaming, using technologies their parents do not always understand and entering virtual worlds their parents cannot always navigate.

It's not so much the amount of time they spend using media that is concerning as it is their bombardment with damaging messages about promiscuous sexuality,unhealthy food and drink products, and celebrity role models who are personally out of control and whose lives set a salacious model for  child behaviour .

The new child - divided into target groups of teens, tweens and babies - has become a consumer. The free market is  contemptuous of these children and their parents, ruthlessly exploiting children's new found spending power and parents' anxieties about how to do the best they can for their 'baby Einsteins'. The words we now use to talk about the media we produce for children come from the sales and marketing domain - 'product', 'consumer', 'brand' and 'platform'.  We don't talk about the content of programs anymore, we talk about the merchandise potential.

In the world of education we still talk about 'children' but teachers and many parents are falling way behind in mastering the educational changes in teaching and learning new media herald. Rudd's Education Revolution recognizes the power and ubitquity of computer technology, but fails to understand the huge role media content plays in children's lives and the education potential that therefore exists to use media in all its forms as a resource for formal education.

Instead the mass media are permitted to operate counter to the best interests of children, in effect undermining values, healthy lifestyles and the authority of parents. The positive contribution new media can make to learning is ignored as we worry about time wasting on games, porn Web sites and stranger danger lurking through the Web

Today's children will be financially dependent on their parents for much longer than ever before but they will expect an independence in decision-making most offspring have never had, taking risks with alcohol, drugs, money and sexuality, early in life, without the emotional maturity to always handle the consequences.  Close to a third of them will never marry but they'll have plenty of experience of serial short-term relationships.

One third of children will fall at the bottom of the heap with parents unable to afford to educate, feed and house them properly, or to guide their behaviour in positive directions.  These are the children we should most worry about.

There is a growing sense of powerlessness on the part of adults which leaves children vulnerable to hedonism, indulgence and neglect, with adults unable to put pressure on governments to act on behalf of the well-being of all children.

Australia still fails to deal with children in a way that guarantees a sound future for every child. Governments don't fully understand that the new child is growing up in a new world of unstable family life, new media influences, new workplace demands on parents, so policies affecting children need to be integrated.   Child policy is all over the place falling between the cracks of a messy political system.  Child care, education, health and workplace policy is part Federal, part State, part local government, partly privatized. Media policy for children is dealt with separately from education reform. Decisions are not made to ensure all these areas work together to help children develop and thrive.

We need a new approach underscored by a more positive view of children and their capacity to cope with the challenges of modern life.

We need grown-ups who are smarter activists on behalf of children and smarter in the ways they interact with and manage the lives of the new child

We need a Federal Minister for Children to coordinate policy- making across various government departments, and to control the quality of early childhood care and preschool education across the nation.

We need a systematic program of parent education and support, a renewal of parent confidence; better information about child development, including the need for limit-setting, effort, mastery; their right to demand better support from government on every front.

All primary schools should be redesigned and funded as Family Learning Centres, linking child care, pre-schooling, family support services, such as maternal and child health and parent education across local and regional areas.

Urban planning should take into account the physical and social needs of children and families aimed at promoting a healthy lifestyle and respect for others.

A complete re-training and reorientation of teachers is needed so they understand the changed family circumstances of the new child; their vital role as models, mentors and guides for children in a complex world; understand the new research on brain development, effort and mastery; and the potential of new media for children's learning and social development.

In short the new child deserves smarter adults at every level, who are thinking more carefully about how current policies and programs could be improved and better linked.

Kids today are exhuberant, perceptive and inventive. They know their way around and it's our job to give them the resilience and resources they need so they have the best chance in life to deal with the problems we bequeath them.