What's your view of our children?

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The modern era has been dominated by two views on childhood – one of tremendous progress in education and health, but a second which focuses on a moral decline and youth crime and sexualisation. Dr Hilary Emery discusses.

Fifty years – five decades – half a century, however you say it, it’s a proud achievement for the National Children’s Bureau to be celebrating its 50th birthday. To mark the beginning of our anniversary year, we teamed up with the V&A Museum of Childhood to host a debate on how modern British childhood has changed over the past 50 years.

One of our panellists, Dr Hugh Cunningham, author of works including The Invention of Childhood, noted that in broad terms there have been two main narratives about childhood during the modern era. 

The first prevailed from the 1800s to just after the Second World War and painted a picture of children’s lives in terms of progress – universal education and healthcare, reductions in child mortality and the emergence of children’s rights.

The second, in more recent times, has been in terms of decline. Stories about “feral” children, child poverty, “hoodies”, teenage knife crime, and the sexualisation and commercialisation of childhood, all suggest that there is something most definitely wrong with children today. 

The debate reminded us that the children’s sector as a whole must strive to remain balanced and credible, whatever frenzied stories about children are circulating in popular culture.

The difficulties the children’s sector faces in walking this line were neatly illustrated by the recent Unicef Report Card, which filters data on a variety of wellbeing indicators – from participation in further education to having a healthy diet – into a league table of child wellbeing across 29 of the world’s richest countries. The latest version, based on data from 2009/10, found that the UK has improved in many areas, for example obesity and one of the lowest rates of child smoking.

Overall we have risen from a dismal last position to attain a respectable mid-table place. However, there are areas where we still lag behind, for example in terms of teenage pregnancies, “NEETs” and young people’s alcohol abuse. How should we interpret this information and present a balanced picture of childhood?

The Report Card provides a useful reminder of what’s going well while indicating other areas where we could, and should, be aiming higher. For example, in terms of childhood mortality, is anything but the best acceptable? If we were leading the way in Europe five children would not die every day who could have been saved.

An article in The Times dismissed the Unicef report as doom-mongering. This was just another example of the misery put about by organisations with a vested interest in painting a bleak picture of childhood. While the article did not dwell on the media’s own role in perpetuating this view, it did provide a sobering reflection. Not least that with state-funding predicted to shrink substantially over the next few years, there is considerable pressure to emphasise what needs fixing in children’s lives. 

All too often it is easier to get media interest in “bad news”, so to get press attention we emphasise the problems at the expense of giving a more nuanced picture. We need to work together to develop more sophisticated narratives about our children’s lives.

The first key must be to always seek robust evidence, but our debate panel was reminded by its young members of the importance of also seeking out the views, opinions and experiences of young people themselves, in a meaningful way.

To its credit, Unicef does just this, by comparing the hard data with children’s own views of life satisfaction. Ultimately, the Report Card should remind us of the power of evidence when coupled with the persuasiveness of voices. A message the children’s sector should continue to value if it is to shape the debate without falling into the clichés.

  • Dr Hilary Emery is chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau. Visit www.ncb.org.uk


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