Socialist Worker

Is childhood dead?

Young people in Britain are under increasing stress and pressure, but Dod Forrest argues that the blame game is missing the real problem

Issue No. 2020

illustration by Tim Sanders

illustration by Tim Sanders


In the neighbourhood where I work, four teenage boys recently committed suicide, all within the space of a few months. Boys complain of bullying and fighting. Girls are prone to depression and anxiety.

Earlier this year, the British Medical Association estimated that 1.1 million children would benefit from help with problems such as depression, anxiety, bulimia, hyperactivity, anger, self-harm and suicide.

Millions of children in Britain live in poverty in an environment where school playing fields have been bought by major supermarkets, playground surfaces are stone and tar, and community centres have been left to rot.

Two weeks ago, the Daily Telegraph published an open letter signed by more than 100 leading paediatricians, academics and authors calling on the government to prevent what they call the “death of childhood” in Britain.

The letter proclaimed that modern life leads to more depression among children. In a statement that few could quibble with, they argue that children need real food not junk food, outdoor play not market driven electronic play, friends, sociability and significant adults in their lives.

Who then is to blame for the death of childhood in Britain? This question has raised a storm of media responses from parents, teachers, politicians and policy makers - although significantly no one asked the children.

Many place the blame with working mothers or single parents. Others blame the television coverage of war and violence that children now view on a daily basis. Many point to the competitive, test driven curriculum as responsible for anxiety and stress.

The fashion industry is another culprit. Tessa Jowell, the culture secretary, blames skinny models. Even the children themselves are blamed for exerting their pester power and for becoming hyperactive.

Personal blame is a means of shifting responsibility for the ills of society onto someone else. For many children it means a “pill for every ill” - in effect, a dose of Ritalin to be taken every day as a substitute for activity and energy that could be spent creatively in play.

Blame is one of the cornerstones of capitalist ideology. It individualises a social problem. It provides the common sense explanations for the ills of neo-liberal Britain, where children now bear the brunt of the shift of responsibility for welfare from the state to parents.

It is society that is structurally to blame for the death of childhood. By this I mean public institutions - especially schools and children’s homes - where study and care are so alienated that school work is akin to a form of child labour.

Though there are many brave and bold teachers and compassionate care workers who work to try to stem this tide, education is largely devoid of the most basic of human needs for support, friendship, creativity and sociability. State sponsored childcare is the least resourced of any welfare professions.

Britain is part of a world that could liberate children from poverty and exploitation, and offer empathy, honest feelings, passionate concern for others, humour and friendship.

If society is structured in such a way that play, learning, fun, security and compassion are not a central feature of a child’s early life, then we have to look for more fundamental explanations for the alienation of childhood today.

There is one explanation for the death of childhood in Britain that has not so far emerged from the debate. It is the endemic presence of alienation within family and working lives.

There is no better explanation of this process than that offered by Karl Marx in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts.

He describes the process in a manner that sums up the modern world of the school and community for many children:

“Labour is external to the worker. It does not belong to his essential being… in his work therefore he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his mental and physical energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind.”

Freedom for children is a daily struggle for children’s rights and support for those children who fight back in the classroom, at home and in the community.

In a multitude of small but significant ways education and welfare workers can listen to children, take their side, and shift the power relations between adult authority and the child.

The core of the problem will remain however - the need to revolutionise the very social relations of neo-liberal Britain and global capitalism that underpin a depressing life in school, home and community for children today.

Dod Forrest is a community learning worker and a member of the University of Aberdeen’s Rowan Group - a research group that focuses on children and young people’s education and wellbeing.


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Sat 30 Sep 2006, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 2020
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