‘A Good Childhood’ by Richard Layard and Judy Dunn

Sunday, March 1st, 2009 by Dr Keith J. White

Background

In February 2009 Penguin published a book with the title, A Good Childhood: Searching for Values in a Competitive Age. It was written by Richard Layard and Judy Dunn, and represented the work of an independent panel, The Good Childhood Inquiry. This group, consisting of nine professors, two representatives of faith communities, and one practitioner, was set up in 2006 by the Children’s Society. What follows is a review of the Penguin book.

A Good Childhood comprises a Preface by Bob Reitemeier, CEO of the Children’s Society, nine chapters, a brief section entitled Messages for Young People, and an Afterword by Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, who was the patron of the Inquiry. The text of the book itself runs to 178 pages, and is written concisely for general readers. There are helpful notes, an extensive bibliography and index. The text is backed by an impressive amount and range of evidence sent in by thousands of groups and individuals, and the comments and views of children and young people.

There are seven themes, each of which forms a chapter: Family, Friends, Lifestyle, Values, Schooling, Mental Health and Inequalities. These are introduced by Chapter One, which establishes what the problem is, and rounded off with Conclusions in the form of recommendations to U.K. Parents, Teachers, Government, the Media and “Society at Large”. There is quite a lot of comparative information about other countries and generally the U.K. does not fare well, and the Scandinavian countries seem to come out best.

This rather prosaic introduction may be useful to readers and others seeking to get to grips with the book, because all this is not quite as obvious as it seems. Try putting the title into Google and you will see what I mean.

Overall Theme

The leitmotif of the book, including the main text and the Afterword, is that children need love, and that we should not be afraid to say so (15, 135, 151, 174). This love should be unconditional (13, 76, 153), but “authoritative” or “firm” in its style (16, 153), with boundaries explained in the context of a warm and loving relationship (16, 30, 153, 155).

Given that this is hardly an exceptional conclusion, and that the average reader will not be unduly surprised by it, why does this need to be said now, and in this way? Two reasons stand out (Chapter One is the place where they are introduced): first that something is changing with regard to childhood and not all for the better; second that there is a growing and serious problem of “excessive individualism” (6), “overblown individualism” (11), and an “excessively individual ethos” (151).

So what is needed is a change of heart on the part of everyone characterised by love, respect and inner quality of life (151-155). Thus the report is punctuated by refrains of the sort, “We need…to reverse the increase in family conflict” (32); “We must ensure a better standard of care” (145); “We need a society which values children more highly” (153); “…our adult society has to change” (162); “It is a world…built on the law of love, that we should create for our children” (163).

Needs and Themes

One of the riddles the book poses for the reader is why the seven themes were chosen. They predated the setting up of the Inquiry team, and much of the evidence was sought in relation to each of the themes. They are sensible, and there is not much to quarrel with about them as a list, but they do not form a coherent framework. There is no chapter on “citizenship”, “community”, or “identity”, for example. This is not to suggest that the book should have been longer, but it is to ponder why this particular set of concepts was decided upon, given that there is no explanation.

It is also unclear why the frameworks of some of those who have worked in this field were discarded. Kellmer Pringle’s The Needs of Children, springs to mind, for example. Instead there is an attempt to describe the needs of children in relation to the seven themes (10), and this is not easy to relate to theories of child development. The reason this matters is that without an easily remembered framework a report can easily be forgotten.

Searching for Values

The subtitle of the book is interesting. Are children and young people searching for values, or was the Inquiry team itself searching for values? Based on the evidence of the report, perhaps both find values in contemporary society hard to identify and agree on. But the reader, inspired by the title, inevitably seeks to understand what the values are that underpin the text: what its philosophical or theological framework is.

The lack of clear values in the main text is highlighted by the theological underpinning of the Afterword. Here Rowan Williams can talk of the Christian heritage, notably the teaching and example of Jesus about children and the Kingdom of Heaven, and marriage as “a reflection of the faithfulness with which God relates to the universe and…Jesus relates to believers” (176).

But the Inquiry team bases its analysis and argument on what seems like an eclectic secular philosophy which is closer to Socialism than the Free Market, utilitarian, optimistic, Darwinian, and evidence-based. Tantalisingly, the report also sees children as a “sacred trust” (12), and extols the virtue of “almost mystical feelings” (84).

What Needs to Change?

There is no doubt in the minds of the team that children are not best served by the way things are at present. Indeed there is quite a lot of strong language associated with current assumptions, attitudes, trends and policies. I picked up, among other terms, the following: “madness” (building without play space: 40); “nastier” (bullying: 45); “disturbing” (youth crime: 47); “fundamentally flawed” (the philosophy behind selfish individualism: 74); “tendency to prejudice and tribalism” (values: 77); “extremely unjust” (lack of mental health services for children who need them: 113); “bad” (inequality: 135). So there is an underlying sense of rage and injustice lurking beneath the rather benign, if not bland, tone of the writing.

A Change of Heart

So things are more difficult for children than they ought to be (4), and there needs to be a change of heart. If so, then what is the basis for appealing to people? What is the moral imperative? When re-reading the book with this question in mind it seemed that in the final analysis the basis is utilitarian: “Better values would benefit all” (11). The premise seems to be that when presented with the evidence of the Inquiry, we will all want to do better. And if that is so, then we must get a grip on why things have gone wrong in the first place. Otherwise we might opt for some New Year-type resolutions that are too easily forgotten or forsaken.

What are the causes of the malaise according to the Inquiry team? Excessive individualism is the main culprit. But how did that arise and why? And how is it fuelled, nurtured and maintained? What are the institutions that legitimate it? This is where the analysis appears rather weak. The Media come in for criticism (59), but there is no attempt at a coherent theory of why the UK is in this particular mess. The book is unwilling to accept economic, psychological, sociological or theological perspectives.

This may be reasonable when seeking to summarise a mass of evidence and opinions. But it is more problematical when you are trying to initiate fundamental changes of heart. Not to be able to use tools and terms such as class conflict and sin in describing why things are as they are, is rather like fighting a battle with one arm tied behind the back. And it is a big handicap not to talk about revolution or repentance as necessary for change.

It would be nice to think that the degree and quality of the evidence summarised in the book will provide a basis for change, but doesn’t human history indicate that there need to be firmer imperatives than that? Denmark, for example, had to start again with its children’s education and welfare policies after the Second World War; there was no choice in the matter.

Recommendations

Each of the seven themed chapters has recommendations and the conclusion reiterates them. Here is a sample from the early chapters: “parents should have a long-term commitment to each other as well as to the welfare of the child” (28); parenting education (28); a civil birth ceremony (29-30); “a society where men can actively spend more time with their children” (30); “children should wherever possible be helped to keep their friends” (48); space for play (48); high quality Young People’s Centres (49); state of the art bullying policies (49); sex education not taught as biology but as centred on love and responsibility (49). This gives a flavour of the nature and tone of the recommendations all through.

But what is it that would motivate government and society at large to act on them? Is it that we share “an ethic in which we care more for each other”? (162) Or is it the persuasiveness of the argument that money invested in childhood saves money in the long run? (126-127)

Conclusion

A Good Childhood brings together good material from research: for example, attachment theory (15-17); spirituality (83-84); overlapping inequalities (146-7). It also presents and represents the voices of children in an accessible way. It is a serious contribution to a debate about children and childhood.

The British press has already got its teeth into a few parts of the report, for example the following section, “The second change is the rise in family break-up. Women’s new economic independence contributes to this rise…” (15) Sentences like this are a hostage to fortune. Overall there has been a modest, but not enthusiastic welcome for the report as a whole.

What the outcome will be remains to be seen, but it will probably take a campaign or coalition based on strong values and moral imperatives to begin the process of turning the tide of social and moral values, and transforming institutions. This is where my opening section on the background to the book is important. The team is now presumably disbanded, having done its work. The press has had its say. The Government will get on with its own Children’s Plans. The Children’s Society will continue its good work encouraged and informed by the Inquiry. I hope that the Children Webmag will play its part.

But what hope is there for a real change of heart in “society at large”? If this sentiment, running right through the book, is to become a reality, the nature and message of a coalition will need to be very well focused, and the target audiences challenged in terms that they find hard to ignore.

We owe it to our children and young people present and future to move to this next stage with urgency.

Layard, Richard and Dunn, Judy (2009)

A Good Childhood: Searching for Values in a Competitive Age

Penguin

ISBN: 978-0-141-03943-5

Price: £9.99

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One Response to “‘A Good Childhood’ by Richard Layard and Judy Dunn”

  1. Marie Peacock Says:

    An excellent review. The Good Childhood Enquiry has done a lot of excellent work but it stands alone without any clear direction for the future, as far as I can tell. Anyway I fail to see how its research regarding the state of childhood/family life in the UK will lead to any fundamental changes in national or local policy when it comes to ‘The Family’. In fact family and parenting policy seems paralysed by the complexity of the systems. We need more cross departmental discussion (not necessarily linked to schools which should be a separate dept in my view, such is its importance) for example more discussion around taxation, family/young people’s leisure and recreation, transport etc
    With regard to family taxation we need income splitting or transferable tax allowances so that families can choose to be taxed as a household (at present you can have two couples on the same household income, one with kids and one without, and unbelievably it’s the couple raising kids who are burdened with paying most tax!). The money should follow the child - at present both parents are encouraged, through social and economic pressure, to work outside the home. But the parentcarer receives no incentive/recognition despite the fact the home learning environment is clearly key to a child’s success and happiness. In fact a parent who can’t work due to caring commitments is not considered a ‘carer’. Why not? Raising a child - especially three or four children, to adulthood, is a huge project requiring a great deal of commitment and expertise from the parent who forfeits an income to do this most important of jobs. Yet at present there is no recognition or support.
    With regards to Leisure and recreation, when it comes to entrance prices charged, I suggest all children should be considered children until they leave education at 18 (instead families in UK are expected to pay full ‘adult’ costs from aged 12/14/16 years old). No wonder families can’t afford to ‘play together’ and share experiences/days out together. School transport should be free to all children 18 and under.
    Instead of children’s centres/statutory services alone, we should make sure that voluntary agencies are supported/recognised for the preventative, universal, community based family work they carry out - for example Home Start volunteers and other charities which provide support based on the values of ‘relationships and community’ rather than trying to build an army of paid ‘parenting experts or specialists’ (arguably there are very few effective paid experts when it comes to parenting - what’s needed is parenting experience, empathy, friendship, non judgmental attitude, sensitivity, patience, emotional intelligence, common sense and a belief in family values and importance of community). We need to put the joy back into family life, instead families are worn down by debt, loneliness, isolation and inability to enjoy local amenities - swimming pools, cinema, art projects, dance, sport etc - due to prohibitive costs of transport and leisure facilities for families.
    The balance in UK needs to tip back in favour of ‘time for parenting and family life’. This includes time for friendship and neighbours and community. Family policy based on the value of relationships/people/children might make things better - but it will take time.
    And we need also to stop thinking about more work (and therefore more childcare) as the way out of child poverty. This only creats another layer of povery - ie emotional and relational poverty which in itself creates financial poverty - a vicious circle. Childcare only encourages more consumerism and less family time. It is not the answer to the problems we face when it comes to ‘a good childhood’. Family life needs to be affordable on just one income and then one and a half incomes when the time is right (it’s not a gender issue - later on it can be mum or dad) . Some people may be able to have two incomes with lots of help from close family members living nearby - but this should not be presented as the ‘norm’ - and certainly house prices should not reflect two full time adult incomes - this was a fundamental mistake and has been disastrous for everyone, mostly our children and our children’s children.
    Oh - and lastly - invest in cycle paths throughout the UK, whatever it takes. It is proven to improve wellbeing and is hugely beneficial for adults and children alike - especially when out and about together taking in the surroundings, healthy and fun in the great outdoors (instead of stuck in front of the TV/ X box, Play Station or suchlike). I’m serious - but this too will take an enormous amount of investment and vision.

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