Parents consider detoxing childhood

When locally- based  author, educationist, broadcaster  and parent Sue Palmer talked at Broughton Primary School on 17 March, her reputation ensured a good turn-out, writes Alan McIntosh.

A former teacher in Edinburgh and headteacher in the Borders, a frequent contributor to the BBC's Today programme and consultant to the National Literacy Trust, she has recently been described in the media as one of Britain’s ‘20 most influential educational thinkers’. Her views were always going to be of interest even if on this occasion they were unlikely to make comfortable listening.

Palmer’s theme was ‘Detoxing Childhood’, a subject drawn from her 2007 bestseller Detoxing Childhood: What Parents Need to Know to Raise Happy, Successful Children.

She began by insisting she is no technophobe, but was quite clear that our adoption of a ‘screen-based culture’ has harmful effects on kids from their earliest years. In many homes, television has to a greater or lesser extent replaced frequent, repeated face-to-face contact between parents and children. At the least, it distracts infants from the pleasurable ‘dance of communication’: learning by copying expressions and tuning-in to language. Later on in life, she continued, social networking sites are no adequate substitute for real socialising between 8–9-year olds.

Whilst admitting that growing up in the 1950s was ‘frequently boring’, Palmer is a champion of unsupervised outdoor play – common then, far less so now. Until the 1980s, she says, outdoor play with friends involved imagination (there were fewer manufactured toys in use), encouraged experimentation, improved fitness, and fostered a degree of resilience to mild physical hardship.

Much of this has gone, she claims. Children have been driven indoors by a hostile traffic environment, and their parents’ disproportionate, media-driven anxiety about everything from pollution to paedophiles. ‘We have created the least physically active generation in history.’

At this stage, Palmer – who is passionate and persuasive about her beliefs – goes a step further and lays much of the blame for what’s not right about children’s upbringing at the door of capitalism. She tries to avoid the ‘C word’, anxious not to sound politically extreme and confessing herself delighted by many of capitalism’s comforts and material conveniences. She’s also keen not to be mistaken for a conspiracy theorist, insisting that her analysis is based on factual evidence by experts in the field.

More accurately described, her target is ‘competitive consumerism’. She dates its introduction in Britain to the 1980s – the ‘loadsamoney’ decade when there was increasing emphasis on measuring status by material goods rather than by social or personal capital. Without detailing exactly how, she claims the 1980s saw competitive consumerism weaken trust between individuals to the detriment of communities.

In the 1990s, corporate strategists looked for ways to improve competitive consumerism – and so profits – by specifically targeting children. Children are a market in their own right, but are also significant influences on adults’ purchase choices. A recent survey in the US showed that 60% of family cars were chosen by children. No wonder market strategists are so keen to influence (Palmer prefers the term ‘brain-wash’) them.

She refers approvingly at this point to ‘enlightened’ legislation in France (where advertising to kids aged under 3 is illegal) and Sweden (where it’s banned for under-12s).

It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Palmer lists 5 traditional foundations on which parents can base an effective upbringing:

  • Love – But not indulgence: insist on proper diet and sufficient sleep.
  • Discipline – Children need to know the ‘rules of the game’, the rules of behaviour, social boundaries. Commercial exploiters of children want to do away with rules, and give children unfettered licence to make (easily manipulated) consumer choices.
  • Language – Effective language extends choice and sets people free. It involves children talking and listening to their families. It cannot properly be acquired in front of screens.
  • Play – Children need to play in the real world as well as cyber worlds, and not always with parents hovering in the background or interfering.
  • Education – This follows and builds upon the previous 4 points, but is not a substitute for them.

Parents can make a difference, Palmer enthuses, but society as a whole needs to mobilise in its own defence. She encourages British parents to follow the US example and organise mass petitions for improvements and controls. She recommends parents lobby their politicians to take the issue seriously, and has herself recently been invited to address the Conservative Party Conference.

Becoming politically savvy may be a necessary step, but as much as anything, she claims, what is required is a radical ‘change of mind’. We need to retrace our steps, and ‘remember how to value kindness more than irony, cynicism and smart-alec reactions.’

For more information visit www.suepalmer.co.uk (from which site all photos used here are reproduced with permission).