17 Feb

Please bring our kids back to the real world and to real childhood

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I’ve vented my spleen with my hairdresser this morning (she understands me!) but the need to articulate my anger at the toxicity of childhood these days has prompted me to write it all down.

We (yes, the collective “we”) are still failing to look at the causes of the problems that beset society and are still looking on the symptoms as the problem that needs fixing. This applies to physical health, mental health, and behavioural issues that are, now, a deep and seemingly out of control feature of our western society. Every single day  news headlines are swamped with regurgitated news of the epidemic of physical health and now, even more alarmingly, the mental health of our children. We are being told day in, day out, that we are all sick; that 1 in 3 of us will have cancer; that 1 in 4 of us will have mental health issues; that 20% of adolescents will have mental health problems  (and that’s just the ones that seek help). The resources to help us all are stretched to breaking point; the NHS can’t cope; government simply says it’s not good enough and we need to do something about it.

Yeah, right. It’s actually, if I dare say so, NOT the government’s duty to fix broken society by throwing more money (if they had it) at services to support all the victims of ‘ill health’. Their duty (if they are duty bound) is to look at WHY we are all suffering? Why do so many people get serious, life threatening/debilitating diseases? I don’t suppose for one minute that governments would stand up and say, unequivocally, that diet, stress, toxic fumes, other contaminants we are blighted with, are the root cause of ALL (I’m sure someone will disagree, somewhere) the health problems we suffer from in the western world.  Nope, as that would be in direct contravention of their M.O. – to support Big Pharma and Big Industry in any way they can; namely by forcing us all to believe that being ill/mentally unwell is the natural state and our only salvation is the sticking plaster that is a symptomatic “cure”. I.e. more medication. It wouldn’t serve anyone in big business to tell us all that we could fix ourselves for free if we stopped being sucked in by the pressures to buy/eat/succeed/be academic/work/look a certain way.

Okay, this blog is about children/childhood/children’s mental health problems and you’re probably wondering why I’m ranting about everything in the paragraph or two above. But it’s all related. All of it. We’re bringing up our children in such a toxic environment – be it from the contaminants in the air we breathe, to the food we eat, to the stress of their potential failure in the education system, to the pressure to keep up with the insidious and appalling nature of social media, and the seemingly unavoidable need for an online presence, to parents who are too busy to give their children the gift of time.

After ten years of coaching children in sport and watching my own son bullied at school I’ve learned a lot. I’ve seen enough to make my heart bleed, and the rapid decline in childhood happiness has galloped out of control, from where I am sitting (and I’m sure I’ve not seen the half of it). I cannot believe the deterioration in children’s well-being, happiness, behaviour, physical and mental health in just the ten years that I’ve worked closely with children. And, I have to say, the deterioration in their general intellect, too.

I’m certainly not qualified, from any professional perspective, to rant about the whys and the wherefores of childhood unhappiness but I know what I’ve seen and I care deeply about a situation that is, I believe, getting worse. I have watched young children incapable of being able to train in their sport for an hour or two without being able to leave their mobile phones alone; I’ve watched children cry because the expectation on them to win everything (with no real input) has ruled their whole perspective of what sport is about; I’ve had children from 14 – 16yrs not come to training for half the year because they couldn’t afford 2hrs a week away from revision for tests that exist only to improve schools’ ratings. These tests DO NOT improve children’s lives. They are there to make parents and children (and government) believe that without good results they have failed. And, doing well in these tests doesn’t give them greater insight in the wonderful world of knowledge; it simply makes them think they’re better than the rest of their peers. They aren’t, the poor things.

But what really sent me over the edge yesterday was listening to Radio 2, to the Jeremy Vine Show (Venessa Feltz was standing in), about the boy who was groomed by an online gamer who eventually murdered him, brutally. An horrific story and one we are hearing all too often. But, we forever hear the same thing – that these kids are all good and sensible kids. Somehow they still get sucked into this addictive and unmonitored world of the internet. And why? Because WE LET THEM! Because we have allowed our children to be bullied by their peers into believing that they have to be part of this lifestyle choice. Parents believe their children will be okay, because they are ‘good kids’, but there are no boundaries on-line. Yes, folks, there are NO BOUNDARIES on-line. If you have brought your children up with behavioural boundaries in the real world then it is likely that those boundaries will not be relevant in the on-line world. Your children will be gently and insidiously guided through the maze of addictive programs, cleverly designed to get as many people using them as much as possible. And, sitting in wait (because they know they are as safe as houses), are those that know, full well, that parents are far too busy to check out what their kids are doing online.

One chap called into the show yesterday and told how his 9 and 11yr old sons got so secretive playing World of Warcraft, on their own laptops, that they would shut the doors to their bedrooms so that the parents couldn’t intervene. This chap eventually, thank God, removed the laptops and internet from the children but it took him weeks to get the children over the addiction to using the game, and to become functioning human beings.

Then last week we heard on the news how a huge percentage of children below the allowed age of 13yrs had Facebook accounts. Um, why? Why are parents allowing this? Why are they so keen to let their children develop a dependency on living an unrealistic and potentially dangerous virtual life, with virtual friends, and unfettered access to any corrupting material they may just happen upon? Is it because the peer pressure is so great that they buckle? Is it because children don’t understand that NO is the answer and that parental boundaries are far more important than the pressure of marketing, consumerism, fashion, fast food, etc?

Our precious children are floundering in an environment where there are precious few boundaries any more. On top of that, they are facing stress at a monumental level from the earliest of ages; to be the top of the class; to have the latest smartphone; to be on social media; to get enough GCSEs and A levels to go to university; to look like some airbrushed model; to be the best because, let’s face it, virtual reality stars don’t need to work that hard to become a celebrity. And with the pressure on parents to both go to work because it’s impossible to buy a house, buy all the latest gadgets, everyone have a car, a different junior club every night of the week, on just one income, kids have the added stress of not having parents to hand.

It’s such a complex subject; it’s virtually impossible to articulate the mess I see that childhood, in general, is in. And I only really see middle-class problems. I dare say I’d weep even more if I were to see other pictures. But too often you hear people say that there are too many children “going without”. Going without what? The latest trainers? The latest iPhone? Food? If I were to hear government ministers say that too many children are going without family time, boundaries, quality childhood playtime, interest-driven and age appropriate education then I’d be the first one to stand up and applaud them. But that, I fear, just ain’t going to happen. And it breaks my heart.

Parents, listen up. Give your child every moment you can of your day; don’t spend money; don’t give them food; don’t let them get lost on the internet, just because it salves your conscience and because it gives you peace and quiet. Listen to them and let them play in the mud, climb trees, build relationships with others in the real world. They are children for just a short time and one day you may just realise that, by depriving them of a childhood of natural development, you have allowed them to become stressed adults, incapable of dealing with real situations and real relationships.

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