Page last updated at 05:01 GMT, Monday, 2 February 2009

Selfish adults 'damage childhood'

By Mark Easton
BBC News Home Editor

Primary playground
The report says children's lives are "more difficult than in the past"

The aggressive pursuit of personal success by adults is now the greatest threat to British children, a major independent report on childhood says.

It calls for a sea-change in social attitudes and policies to counter the damage done to children by society.

Family break-up, unprincipled advertising, too much competition in education and income inequality are mentioned as big contributing factors.

A panel of independent experts carried out the study over three years.

The report, called The Good Childhood Inquiry and commissioned by the Children's Society, concludes that children's lives in Britain have become "more difficult than in the past", adding that "more young people are anxious and troubled".

According to the panel, "excessive individualism" is to blame for many of the problems children face and needs to be replaced by a value system where people seek satisfaction more from helping others rather than pursuing private advantage.

A spokesman for the Department for Children Schools and Families said: "We know there are still risks and challenges ahead for children and parents and that there is more for us all to do".

'Tone deaf'

The inquiry has a long list of recommendations including:

• abolishing Sats tests and league tables in English schools

• a ban on all advertising aimed at the under 12s and no TV commercials for alcohol or unhealthy food before the 9pm watershed

• stopping building on any open space where children play

• a high-quality youth centre for every 5,000 young people

"Individual freedom and self-determination bring many blessings," writes the report's principal author, Labour peer Lord Richard Layard.

"But in Britain... the balance has tilted too far," he says.

mark easton
This is a starting point for a debate as to why a million and a half British children are unhappy and why young people's emotional health appears to be worsening.

Another contributor, the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, suggests society has become "tone-deaf to the real requirements of children… in a climate where the mixture of sentimentalism and panic makes discussion of children's issues so difficult".

The panel, made up of 11 experts including eight university professors, says its conclusions are evidence based.

But some of its findings on family life in Britain are bound to be controversial.

Working mothers

It cites research suggesting that three times as many three year olds living with lone parents or a step-parent have behavioural problems compared with those living with married parents.


"Children with separate, single or step parents are 50% more likely to fail at school, have low esteem, be unpopular with other children and have behavioural difficulties, anxiety or depression," it argues.

"Child-rearing is one of the most challenging tasks in life and ideally it requires two people," the report concludes.

It also suggests that having many more working mothers has contributed to the damage done to children.

"Most women now work and their new economic independence contributes to levels of family break-up which are higher in the UK than in any other Western European country."

The panel has a series of recommendations aimed at improving the quality of family life experienced by children:

• a civil birth ceremony conducted by a registrar in which parents publicly accept the responsibilities of parenthood

• free parenting classes available around the time of birth

• free psychological and family support if relationships struggle

• rules making it easier for parents to stay at home to rear their children

Chief Executive of the Children's Society, Bob Reitemeyer, commissioned the research which included more than 30,000 submissions from organisations and children.

"Essentially the report brings a taboo into the open which is that we have to confront our selfish and individualistic culture," he said.

"We need to realise that we are collectively responsible for the welfare of all children and that together we can make childhood better."

The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, Ed Balls, is studying the report.

Girls playing with computer game
The report says parents should have free parenting classes

Although government may be sympathetic to some of the inquiry's conclusions, it is unlikely it will implement its radical proposals in the near future.

The government statement said: "The report mirrors the ambitious plan for improving children's lives and outcomes we set out in our Children's Plan, which aims to give every child the best chance in life, and we are pleased that the review acknowledges the positive impact that the Children's Plan is already having on children's lives.

"We know there are still risks and challenges ahead for children and parents and that there is more for us all to do.

"But as the report points out, in many ways our children have never lived so well - children are more educated, less sick, and more tolerant, and the government is working hard to invest, help and support children and their families to make Britain the best place in the world to grow up."

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