Tuesday, April 17, 2007

More on our young people

In the aftermath of yesterday's tragic events at Virginia Tech University, journalists and politicians will do the inevitable public hand-wringing and searching for scapegoats. Parents, teachers, liberals, pop musicians et al will come in for their usual dose of blame and I daresay that some of it will be deserved. But what will be proved or, more to the point, what will be solved?

A few weeks ago, I promised Adelephant a post on my views on some of the problems in our schools and homes. I've heard that Adelephant's laptop has been stolen, so I hope the insurance stumps up for a replacement soon so that we can get a lively debate going.

Many years as an adviser to schools and families gave me opportunities to observe social changes at close hand. I am not opposed to change or progress but not all change is progress, just as not all progress is to the benefit of everyone. There has been rapid and dramatic change in many areas of life during the years since the Second World War and I think it is the rapidity that underlies our problems. We have not had the luxury of time to accommodate change, to evaluate and sort out the difficulties before the next set of changes; this has left two generations with unsure foundations.

Here are a few of my observations, obviously somewhat generalised and over-simplified but I have to start somewhere. I'll tackle different aspects in separate posts:

Part one: Family life

The 1960s in Britain were the 'we've never had it so good' years. Post-war austerity was over, there was high employment, better health and education. Thanks to government grants, thousands of working-class youngsters were able to go to college and enter professions previously the preserve of the middle classes. As a result, there was a breaking up of the traditional family, where generations lived in the same area and supported each other from cradle to grave. Instead of following his father down the mines, on the farm or in the factory, Jimmy went to a college many miles away, looked for a job there, married and started a family, isolated from his roots. At the same time, girls were being encouraged to think of careers before marriage and they started to move away from the traditional support of mothers, grandmothers and aunts with all their acquired wisdom of home-making and child-rearing.

So, we have many more advantages in education, travel, employment, health and freedom of choice balanced against the loss of the extended family for physical and moral support and the handing on of basic parenting skills.

The apparent outcomes for society include old people becoming a 'burden on the state' instead of being cared for within the family; increased pressure on marriages/partnerships when parents have no-one to look to for advice or support, leading to increased rates of divorce or separation; a decline in any sense of community or belonging.

The current generation of young mothers has a new set of pressures from the government and the media. On the one hand they have the government telling them to put babies into daycare and to go back to work and on the other, conflicting 'experts' telling them that staying at home to bring up baby is the best or the worst thing to do.

How to address the problems? We have charitable schemes like Home-Start, which sends volunteers to give the advice grandma used to give; the government sponsored Sure Start scheme offers similar support in the poorest inner city areas and some local authorities provide parenting classes for the most troubled or troublesome families. These schemes are all effective but a mere drop in the ocean of need.

These are some of the most significant issues I had to address in my work with families:

  • lack of organisation and time management - no set bedtimes, homework not supervised, children choosing what and when to eat
  • poor or inconsistent discipline - children not having recognised boundaries and no consistent rewards and punishments, resulting in children not understanding what is right and wrong because it differs from day to day
  • no family mealtimes - the majority of homes I went to in the last fifteen years had no dining table, meals were taken on trays in front of the television or family members grazed on a succession of snacks and takeaway food
  • lack of family time - many of the families I was involved with either did no activities together or else the children were involved in so many clubs, teams and societies that they had no time just to play or to do things as a family
  • lack of quiet - in many homes the television forms a frequently unnoticed background of sound throughout the day; children don't learn to listen and to pay attention when they are constantly bombarded with meaningless sound
  • lack of incentive to do well - many children never hear themselves or their work praised: success breeds success and indifference or too much criticism leads to 'am I bovvered?'

Tomorrow: language development and our schools

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