Are today's kids spoiled rotten or are selfish parents giving them a rotten time? Choose your answer with your newspaper or talk show, your politician or your cab driver. On my last transatlantic trip I rode to Heathrow with a driver who told me: "Today's parents aren't fit to have kids. They think about nothing but their pockets and pleasures - out to work, off to the bar; poor kids aren't brought up: they have to drag themselves up . . ." But it was the other story on the ride in from Kennedy: "Kids today don't know when they're well off. When I was a boy I worked for what I got and then It wasn't much, I'm telling you. Now kids from decent homes where parents work to buy them everything just think they're entitled to do as they like ... beating up teachers, raping, robbing."
Today's parents ... Kids today ... When I was a boy ... Social debate always relies on statements about past times and distant places to throw the present into high relief, but most such statements should start with "Once upon a time," as in "Once upon a time there was a golden age of the family ... a proper balance between rights and responsibilities ... majority agreement on decent social values." Many people certainly believe that things are worse than they have ever been, but many people in each successive generation always do, and our generation is rendered especially susceptible by mass communications.
A torrent of media messages reflects, and may also create, societies that are fascinated by their boundless potential for horror and horrified by themselves. Fiction and faction, commentary and news seem to compete to make us think about the unthinkable, and to find new limits to challenge us as our tolerance rises. Rape has become a subject everyone can discuss, so now we must face male rape, mass rape and the rape of children. Everybody has been forced to accept that many children are abused in "ordinary families," but there is still shock value in child abuse by bishops and priests, by satanists and porno rings and in the institutions we set up to care for children who are "at risk." And if we are near to having faced the limits of horror with children as victims, there is still mileage in children as aggressors and more still if their victims are children, too. Rape by a twelve-year-old is certain of headlines, while the recent death of a British two-year-old allegedly at the hands of two ten-year-olds received more coverage than all the 100-odd murders of toddlers at the hands of adults in the same year put together. We are being shown children and young people from every kind of background - yours and mine as well as his and hers - not just failing in schools but terrorizing them; not just flouting teachers but injuring them; not just getting into mischief but joyriding, burglarizing, destroying, out of control.
These are real pictures of real happenings but they may nevertheless distort reality as a zoom lens distorts a landscape - highlighting selected detail and contrast and distracting us from a context that is less dramatic but at least as deserving of our concern. It is that context of ordinary, everyday lives and experiences that this book explores, through the widest possible lens.
My lens has not always had such a wide angle. I spent most of ten years in child development research and most of another ten passing on the findings to parents and using them myself in bringing up our own two children. I believed that "good parenting" - the kind that meets the needs of both children and parents - was not something that could be authoritatively generalized, but something that had to keep evolving out of the constantly changing interaction between growing children and adults who felt sufficiently supported and self-confident to respond to them. I believed that the more people knew about children in general, the more fascinating they would find their own child in particular - and I believed that while finding a child fascinating is no substitute for loving her, it could be a most useful support at 4 a.m. when there was not much love around.
I still believe all that, but the last ten years have forced me to widen my focus. I know that most individual parents do everything they can to facilitate the health and happiness, growth and development of their babies; to deliver socialized and sociable children into society's formal education system and to support them through it and out into adult life. But everything parents can do is clearly not enough. Whatever the real scale and scope of horrors perpetrated on or by children, there are not hundreds, not thousands, but millions more who are being failed by Western society, and are failing it. We leave parents the responsibility for children's well-being and happiness, but do we also empower them to ensure it?
This book argues that our society is inimical to children and has therefore devalued parents to such an extent that individual good parenting is not only exceedingly difficult but, ultimately, insufficient. Dissemination of information concerning child development remains valuable to individuals, but parent education alone cannot create a better future for children, nor parent bashing explain their grim present. When a company Is ailing, the board often tries to blame the training, performance and wage demands of its work force, but shareholders know that its success or failure depends on adequate capital investment and good management. All of us are shareholders in society's children and it is time we widened the focus of our attention from what is happening at the bottom, in individual families, to what is happening at the top in society as a whole.
Looking to the top means looking to policy-makers and opinion-makers in government, civil service and social institutions, in the media and the professions, in financial markets and in industry. That does not mean looking to people other than parents and children, though. Top people were all children first and most of them became parents later, but to meet the demands of the job they were encouraged to leave all that at home with their jeans and sneakers, and put on indifference with their business suits. The charge of indifference to children will offend many of them, as will the suggestion that Western children are having a lousy time. I regret that offense because I am sure that on a personal level most people are concerned for children, and that almost all those who are actively parenting are doing their utmost to give their own children a good life. But the offense has to be given and gotten through, because it is only when we get to the far side of the personal that we can start to see what may have gone wrong and rethink what might be right.
On a personal level, the birth of a healthy child is as much cause for celebration in Western societies as it is all over the world, and for the same reasons. Children's survival depends on adults, so the survival of the human race depends, as it always has depended, on women and men wanting and caring about them. We do not have children for their own sakes but for ourselves. Parents of both sexes from many cultures sum up their reasons for wanting them in words that best translate as "for pleasure and for fun." Childbirth and health are not solely individual concerns, though. The newborn baby, focusing the universal blue gaze that spans time and place, culture and race, and is simply human, sees nothing of substance beyond her mother's face. But her parents or parent figures will only be the foreground of her life-style and chances. What parents do - and what they can do - depends on what their society allows, approves or arranges.
Compared with other times and places, newborns and their parents in post-industrial Western societies are fortunate. They are heirs to a legacy of scientific attention to childbirth and related "women's matters" that goes back to the nineteenth century and has given us an awesome and increasing control over the production of babies. Parents can opt for quality rather than quantity. We can prevent conception without limiting sexual activity and assist it with a range of techniques from simple artificial insemination to sophisticated in vitro fertilization. We can practice quality control on the conceptus, using diagnostic techniques in utero and abortion - or even corrective surgery - when fetal development does not meet our norms. We can intervene to ensure women's survival through perilous labors and employ intensive care and pediatric surgical techniques to save babies who would not be viable in any other place or time. Safely born to women whose physical and mental health has not been debilitated by early and repeated childbearing or the fear of it, and to men who are not overburdened with mouths to feed and bury, or the dread of being so, Western babies get the world's best start.
A good start is only a start, though. Focused on the beginning of life, Western societies see later needs far less clearly. The frontiers of medical science and associated technology have been pushed forward without a matching commitment to social science and human relations. We know much more about the reproductive biology and genetics of parenthood than we know about the social, emotional and psychological impacts of parenting and we devote far greater research resources to producing physically healthy babies than to rearing emotionally stable children. Indeed, while family planning, artificial baby foods and a host of childcare aids have dramatically reduced the burdens of traditional mothering roles, those roles themselves have been invalidated and have not been replaced with a workable restructuring of gender roles and relationships. What is needed now is something that cannot be produced by further scientific advance or a new technical fix: a reappraisal of the importance of parenting and fresh approaches to the continuing care and education of children in, and for, changing societies.
We need to remind ourselves that human children require intensive, personalized and long-lasting care. Babies have to be fed, warmed and protected, and we are good at that, but if physical care is all they are given, many fall to thrive and some die. Affectionate interaction with a few familiar people is not merely enjoyable; it is a necessity for good health and development. Yet we ration it. The ending of infancy alters the necessary commitment of parents or their surrogates but does not end it. Children under seven still need constant adult protection. In middle childhood, survival and life skills, along with morals and manners, go on being learned over at least five more years of close apprenticeship to adults. Even then, on the edge of puberty, it takes people at least five further years of physical growth and intellectual and social maturation to refine those skills so that adolescents can begin to function as adults within the value system of their particular culture. However much they may delegate to other caregivers and to educational institutions, parents and parent figures are crucial to every phase of this long human childhood, not least because it is individual parents who most passionately want to meet the needs of their own children, and passion is part of what is needed.
In these final years of the twentieth century, Western states are well placed to help and facilitate parents through their governments and institutions and through their opinion-makers and media, but they do so far less than they could. We enjoy the greatest wealth and productivity and the most advanced health care, broadly based education and widespread communications the world has ever known. That means that we have room for choice and maneuver, and it means we have information to guide us in using it, too. Accumulated research evidence suggests that child-friendly choices would not only make things better for today's children and their parents, but also for yesterday's and tomorrow's, improving the least desirable aspects of modern Western life for everybody. How long are we going to go on ignoring all that evidence while moaning about "today's parents" and "kids today," yearning nostalgically for an undefined past time when every rainbow had "family values" in its pot of gold?
If the powers-that-be are ever to recognize the need to make choices for children, and face the results of their own failure to make those choices to date, they will first have to relinquish the moral high ground of their assumption that today's children "have never had it so good." Of course children in post-industrial Western societies are better off, in our terms, than the children who worked with their parents on the cotton plantations and in the mills of nineteenth-century America and Britain, or those who work in the sweatshops of contemporary cities in countries that are industrializing now. Of course our children's world Is privileged beyond the dreams of millions in the villages of developing nations. And of course we can see our treatment of children as humane and respectful if we compare it with the treatment of children swept around Eastern Europe in an orgy of "ethnic cleansing" or shot as vermin in the streets of Brazil. But hindsight, and value judgments that tell us life is better for most children here and now than somewhere else or at another time, are cop-outs. The moral imperative for any society, surely, is to do the best it can in response to its own unique conditions; doing better than other societies that are less well-placed is no good cause for complacency. The comparisons that matter, and the ones that anger me, are between how things are for our children and how they could be. When we make those comparisons the moral high ground crumbles beneath us, because our society could do so much better for children than it does.

Which modern Western trends are inimical to children?

How do they distort policy and practice in areas of known parental and child need?

How, practically, could we do better?

Those are the three broad questions addressed in turn by the three parts of this book.

© Penelope Leach, 1994