September 18, 2008
Lonely, manipulated, unhealthy. Children today are in crisis, say Don and Patricia Edgar. So what hope is there for them as adults?
Childhood is always new, but Don and Patricia Edgar believe Australian children today are entering an unprecedented moral and social landscape. Their book, The New Child, In search of smarter grown-ups, describes what is emerging now and gives some pointers to help children find their way.
The Edgars say the book came about partly from observing their four grandchildren and realising the world they inhabit is radically different from the one their two daughters lived in when they were growing up in the 1960s.
They write: "In those days, being a good parent meant simply raising your children to be decent people, to have the basic skills everyone needed to survive - reading, writing, a bit of maths and enough nous to make a reasonable fist of life. Today we've become more ambitious for our children: probably too ambitious for their good and for our own peace of mind. Because we delay having children, and then have only one or two, they are a very important part of life. Since it's no longer an automatic assumption that children will come along ... the emotional impact of having a child is greater. That makes the child precious and guarantees (in most instances) a better quality of parental attention to needs."
But there is a downside: these children are living in a postmodern world, without agreed values, in which family structures are more fragmented, in which market forces dominate as never before and in which parents are busier. Once children knew the other children in their street and spent their free time playing outside with a tribe of neighbours and their own brothers and sisters. Now street play is less common, families are smaller and children are more likely to be found alone inside with a computer.
The Edgars bring a lifetime to experience to their task. Patricia Edgar was the founder and director of the Australian Children's Television Foundation and chairs the World Summit Foundation on Media for Children, while Don Edgar was the founding director of the Australian Institute of Family Studies and member of the Victorian Children's Council, working to reform and better integrate children's services. The book reflects their different but convergent interests, combining personal anecdotes, sociological research and examining the role the new media plays in children's lives.
"Life is a bit lonely for many children today," they write. "Parents send them a mixed message: 'We love you, but there's no time to talk now.' A recent international study found that young children who were accustomed to running their own lives while parents worked were more likely to resist parental disapproval of their behaviour as teenagers. It was a case of: Who are you? Why do you think you have a right to tell me what to do? Where have you been all the years I've been growing up?"
In addition, many parents are not only busy, but also confused, the Edgars say. It is not unusual for new parents to have little experience with young children - despite the recent spike in births, the national birth rate is still below replacement levels and about a third of adults will never be parents. Where once new parents may have sought practical advice from siblings or peers, they are now more likely to turn to books and to receive a range of opinions from experts who are not on the scene. One consequence is an ineffectual parent with little faith in their own natural authority.
"They are taught to discuss with their child," says Patricia Edgar. "You can get into incredible negotiations with two, three and five-year-olds. And as soon as (children) see a weakness in the authority of their parent they start chipping away at it." Don Edgar says reasonable limits give a child a sense of security. "It's obviously better for parents to listen to their kids but it's gone too far."
Interestingly, the Edgars observe an unwillingness to set limits for children as a phenomenon that pervades all of society: marketing strategies target babies and toddlers (TV series such as Teletubbies is one example); Bratz dolls sexualise the play of little girls; computer games are devised to sell products rather than to stimulate the creative capacities of the young and so on. In a market-dominated era, children have become fair game. Patricia Edgar, who has spent her working life developing nourishing media content for children, says the overwhelming emphasis of the children's movies, TV series and computer games being made today is whether the concept can generate profitable merchandise. And yet the Edgars say that research and experience tell us that what children need are stories that help them understand the world while stimulating their imaginations. Children love computers, they say, so why not develop computer games or activities with meaningful content that are still fun?
The Edgars take the same pragmatic approach to child care. They say the argument about preschool centres should not be about whether they should exist at all. (They accept that working mothers are a vital part of Australian life now.) Instead they put the case for better quality care. Early childhood development research tells us these years are vital, so why not better train child-care staff and fund centres so they can provide an optimal environment for young children?
A parallel concern is the education divide. More than ever, the wealth and education levels of parents determines the educational outcomes of their children. Don Edgar says he hopes the Federal Labor Government's "education revolution" will "look at education right across the board in terms of developing the best quality of education for children".
"There is rhetoric about children being our future," he says, "but it's becoming an economic issue, about investing in kids. There is not so much talk about the quality of children's lives."
In an era when family and community ties are weaker than ever, and when traditional religion is in decline, society needs to think hard about the values it wants to impart to children, the Edgars say. The New Child is a call for adults to think harder about the generation they are creating.
The New Child, In search of smarter grown-ups, by Don and Patricia Edgar, Wilkinson Publishing, $34.95
Kids today ...
- Constitute about a fifth of our national population, with 4 million children aged 14 and under.
- May be among the 20% who live in one-parent families. A quarter of kids will spend at least part of their lives in such an arrangement.
- Have older parents, who generally both work, and fewer siblings. This can lead to a more "adult" family life.
- Are financially dependent on their parents for longer and most will stay at home until their mid-30s. A third of them will never marry.
- Spend around seven hours a day exposed to different forms of media - more time than they spend at school. And while kids' media usage has grown, their immersion is also "deeper".
- Are likely to have some of their own material on the internet (40% of children) or have a page on a social networking site (30%).
- Have a one in three chance of being overweight.
Source: The New Child, Wilkinson Publishing