John Bird: Think of the children, the market certainly does

The hoovering up of vast amounts of money into the hands of the few has come at the expense of our children’s minds and bodies

There is something very strange about modern childhood. On too many occasions, parents seem to be commissioned into bringing up a member of the aristocracy. The aristocrat can leave their dirty clothes as and where they wish. They will be fed, watered and provided for. They can issue out for the day, or the night.

I observe this (almost) as an outsider. I never went through this as a child. Though it’s alien to my experience, it’s not unknown to me and I’ve observed this new strain of child-rearing, this indulged childhood.

A decade and a half ago, I suggested at a conference that we were missing a trick. And that some children were being grown in such a weird way, that it stopped them from growing. I pointed out that perhaps – for the first time ever – our children had no role in life.

Of course, blaming children or lax parenting hides the big elephant in this particular small room. Consumerism

That possibly up until the 1970s, many children had their tasks, jobs and responsibilities. As a child, I had to work part-time from the age of 10 to add lustre to the family exchequer. But that now, our children had no real role in many families. From birth to when they leave the nest, they live in a kind of ‘use vacuum’.

I suggested that children could start contributing to the family budget, or volunteer to help those in need. Unfortunately, this was interpreted by another speaker as a suggestion that we put our children up chimneys again as was done in Victorian times. I was outraged and protested. All I had suggested was “Let’s make childhood more dynamic by making it full of responsibility.”

I was reminded of this when talking to a mother recently. Her children tell her what to do. She is extremely unhappy with this and feels terrorised. She feels that her human rights are being violated by children who learn about human rights in school, but can’t see their application at home.

Philip Larkin
Philip-Larkin
Philip Larkin's This Be The Verse places the blame on parents for children's upbringing

Is there an ideal way of bringing up a child? I’m not so sure. I have tried to bring my own children up through indulgences and through anger, and that didn’t always do well. I am not a model parent, but there must be a way of raising our children so they don’t terrorise, don’t dominate and don’t act as members of the 18th-century aristocracy, their parents as mere vassals.

The post-war English poet Philip Larkin wrote a poem called This Be The Verse. “They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They may not mean to, but they do.” I wonder, thinking of the terrorised mother, and many other examples I’ve seen of human rights abuses by children of their parents, whether Larkin might have written another poem. That is, if he moved on to fatherhood himself. It might have run “They fuck you up, your children…”

DID YOU KNOW…

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Of course, blaming children or lax parenting hides the big elephant in this particular small room. Consumerism. That is, the marketplace and the plethora of things a child must now ‘have’ in order to exist. Like their parents and like society in general, we are now so snowed under with delights and demands that the marketplace encourages us to use. We are so geared up to consumption that waste of the physical kind combines with the waste of the mind.

Children now are a big part of the marketplace. Billions are spent not (always) on their improvement, but on their appetites. And at the same time, we have children living a breadline life, in families that are barely keeping their nose above water. Alarmingly, more than two thirds of children living in poverty are from families where at least one parent is working.

Caught in a world of temptations, Pied Piper-ish, our children are being led into oblivion by devices and social media, which seems remarkably anti-social. Perhaps Instagram should carry a health warning?

This contradiction, between plenty and empty, lies at the centre of modern life. It eats into our collective happiness. It rots our democracy. What was Brexit all about if not this combination of indulgence and ugly need?

When I saw the terror in this mother’s eyes recently, I felt that there was a big human rights abuse happening, but that it was going unrecorded. That abuse was happening in a family that is not on the breadline. And that the bigger the range of gizmos for entertainment and distraction, and the more wires you can shove into your ears to cut you off from life, the more suffering you add to the world.

The hoovering up of vast amounts of money into the hands of the few has come at the expense of our children’s minds and bodies. Caught in a world of temptations, Pied Piper-ish, our children are being led into oblivion by devices and social media, which seems remarkably anti-social. Perhaps Instagram should carry a health warning? A University of Sheffield study revealed last year that the children who spend more time on online social networks feel less happy in almost every aspect of their lives.

All the while, the fat cats laugh their way to the bank. And enslavement by the marketplace runs on ahead of us all.

I read a joke in my local parish magazine recently. A man is being rescued by a boat from a desert island after five years. Before he leaves, he’s handed the newspapers to check for sure that he wants to rejoin society. Funny, and thought-provoking.

How much of this existing world, with its endorsement of indulgence – and while hunger lurks close at hand – actually makes sense? You certainly wouldn’t plan it this way.

Larkin blamed parents. Perhaps he was right, and we’ve allowed such indulgences to gain the upper hand.

But don’t blame the kids! They are innocents on to which we allow the market to feast its ugly distortions.