What future for youth?
by Kylie Salisbury
We all know and hate them — the spoilt toddlers screaming endlessly in the supermarket; the teenagers skylarking around in public places, shrieking American slang and obscenities at each other; the pre-teen boys oblivious to the world around them, eyes glassy, riveted to a gameboy or lost in their iPod world; the young schoolgirls unconsciously mimicking prostitutes, their clothing and mannerisms. We all, at some time or another, have looked at them and thought, “What is the world coming to?”
If you’re committed to the future of the planet and its people, it can sometimes be a depressing prospect, envisioning a world in which these teenage and pre-teen children will one day manage our world. Where, we despair, is the altruism, the self-discipline and the education that future generations will need, to solve the enormous problems our planet faces?
These children are — with the odd exception — unhealthy, unkempt, at best semi-literature, lazy, Americanised, anti-social, prone to serious anxiety and depression, addicted to legal and illegal drugs, and equally addicted to consumer gadgets. The two questions this article will try to address are: How did our children come to be like this and what can be done to make them more humanitarian, more thoughtful and better prepared to face the complex world of tomorrow?
If you think that somehow this doesn’t concern you, let me quote from Children of the Lucky Country?
“We all benefit if parents raise children who are socially competent and resilient, have empathy with others, are capable of and motivated to be independent and contributing members of society, are healthy and well-adjusted, optimistic and creative. In contrast, we all suffer if children reach adulthood with poor health, feelings of anger and alienation, low levels of social and work skills, poor self-control and a propensity to violence and a bleak sense of the future”.1
Socialists work tirelessly for social reconstruction, driven to a large extent by the premise that people are mostly products of their environment. Although we adults bear some responsibility for the environment in which our children are growing up (e.g. who we vote for), it is in the main shaped by powerful commercial interests.
So let’s look for a moment at this society which is home to the children we see and despise all around us, the society in which they themselves become adults. The more closely we look at the world our children are forced to inhabit, the more obvious it becomes that although they look like failures, the truth is that society has failed them.
Every day millions of children in Australia consume food and drink which contains colouring additives. One packet of jellybeans contains eight colouring additives. Nothing new there you might think, but seven of those additives are banned in several other countries. Don’t Australian parents care as much about their own children’s health as the parents in the countries that have implemented the ban? Maybe they just don’t know the danger. And another thing, in Australia a child suffers from abuse every thirteen minutes. By the time you read this article that’s another abused child. By the time you read this entire issue of the AMR there’ll be another four to five children abused. Again what does this say about us as a community?
More facts. The youth suicide rate has increased four-fold for boys and doubled for girls since the 1960s; teenage pregnancies are on the increase as are the number of boys committing sexual assaults and at younger ages. Psychologists are seeing more instances of delinquent behaviour, aggression, anti-social behaviour, depression and eating disorders in ever-younger people and early childhood nurses are seeing more asthma, diabetes (type 1 and 2), and obesity than ever before.
One-in-eight adults (many of them parents) drink to dangerous levels every week and the age of starting to binge drink for boys is typically 13-14 years old. Forty percent of children in Australia are showing signs of serious cardiovascular disease by the age of 15.
But all these illnesses — physical and psychological — are really just symptoms of a much larger social problem, the fact that our society is becoming increasingly child-unfriendly. In fact our society at this stage of advanced capitalism is becoming increasingly people-unfriendly and children, already at the bottom of the pile, are the first and most obvious to suffer.
Our child-unfriendly society
There are many factors helping to create the kinds of children we all know and dislike. The first key factor is the increasing gap between advantaged and disadvantaged families, between the rich and the poor. As the poor get poorer, other conditions appear. Poor nutrition, domestic violence, long-term unemployment, social isolation, poor parenting skills, limited education, mental illness, substance abuse, stressed and unloving parents.2 In other words, a pretty grim life experience for increasing numbers of children growing up in these conditions.
The 2004 Senate Report on Poverty and Financial Hardship found that poverty currently affects 4.1 million Australians. Of these, there are now one million so-called “working poor”, people who live in poverty despite being in a household with one or more regular incomes.
Perhaps most shocking of all was the finding that 700,000 children are living in homes where no adult is working. It is fairly safe to assume that very few of these children are getting the nutrition, books, soccer coaching, piano lessons, personal space and educational toys, for example, which the sons and daughters of comfortably-off take for granted.
The second factor is that under capitalism we are not people but consumers and corporations are targeting younger and younger consumers. A University of Western Sydney (UWS) study has found that the age when children first buy a mobile phone, for example, has dropped from 13 to 9 in the past two years. UWS Education researcher Joanne Dwyer says: “Walt Disney, Warner Bros and the creators of the Teletubbies have developed cartoons that can be played on a mobile phone to keep children under six occupied.”3
In an article in the English Guardian4 Neal Lawson, Chairman of the pressure group Compass writes:
An iPod and the right phone are now essential trappings of youth — not just because they let you talk or listen to music at your convenience, but because of what they say about you. Once we were known by what we produced. Now we judge ourselves and others by what we and they consume. The advertisers know this; that’s why they ask: “What does your mobile say about you?”
“Welcome to the consumer society and the world of the turbo-consumer. It’s a world driven by competition for consumer goods and paid-for experiences, of hi-tech and high-end shopping signals that have become the means by which we keep score with each other
“As the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman points out, to be a successful consumer now defines what it is to be “normal”. Therefore to be “abnormal” is to be a failed consumer. The lot of the failed consumer is miserable. This new poor may be better off in absolute terms than the poor of previous generations, but in the world of the turbo-consumer what you have means nothing — it’s what others have and therefore what we must have next that counts. On these terms the new poor are falling far behind in an age when keeping up is everything.
“The failed consumer suffers not just from exclusion from normal society but isolation. The poor of the past had each other in a community of poverty. Misery could be shared and countered through class solidarity and the hope of a different life. The new poor lick their wounds alone in their council flats, with nowhere to hide from the messages on billboards and TV that constantly remind them of their social failure. The new poor, without the right labels and brands, are not just excluded but invisible.
“The final ignominy of today’s poor is that they don’t want to overthrow the rich to create a new order, they just want to be like them. So they are denied even the satisfaction of anyone to hate — just B-list celebrities to envy and copy.”
Another factor impacting very negatively on our children is the cost of housing in major cities. Few people were surprised when Prime Minister Howard so cynically used the threat of interest rate rises in his last federal election campaign. In Sydney particularly the spectre of mortgage and rent increases haunts many thousands of families. In the last 12 months evictions in NSW have increased 50%.
There is a nationwide shortage of 150,000 units of affordable housing. In most States there is a waiting list of five or more years for public housing. There are an estimated 100,000 homeless people in Australia and 22% of those are couples or families. The Macquarie Bank has forecast a huge increase in mortgage defaults in 2007 and a possible rent rise of up to $150 per week in Sydney by the end of this year.
What this means for children is overcrowded bedrooms. A desk for homework is an unthinkable luxury. Homework is done on one’s lap on a bunk-bed surrounded by the noise and mess of siblings. Tiny kitchens and the near impossibility of storing and preparing healthy ingredients where there is no pantry or bench space. In such dwelling there is no room for physical play, so the TV becomes a constant companion and distraction. We should note here that free trade agreements determine largely what foods are available for our kids in local supermarkets and what programmes they can watch on TV.
Horrible as these conditions are for children, they are not the worst aspect of the high cost of housing, merely the most immediately obvious. Worst of all is the fact that parents are forced to spend more time away from their children, working to pay for the mortgage or the rent.
Countless surveys over many years have shown that above all else what children want most in life is to have more time with their parents and more attention from their parents. Educators and childhood experts all recognise the increase in attention-seeking and disruptive (or “challenging”) behaviour in our youth, as a cry for help, a need to be noticed, loved, acknowledged in an age when parents have no choice but to neglect their children and rush out to work to pay the bills.
Since the 1970s increasing numbers of women have joined the workforce, but in these intervening decades there have been few changes to the workplace to accommodate the requirements of mothers or begin to meet the needs of children.
In one of capitalist society’s most cynical and destructive cons, women have been led to believe they can “have it all” — a family and a career. The reasoning behind this is not capitalism’s concern to uphold women’s rights but a shrewd and calculating push to increase female participation in the workforce in the face of a skills shortage and the rapid aging of the population.
Our politicians face a dilemma. On the one hand they need to halt the decline of population numbers and hence Federal Treasurer Peter Costello’s often quoted plea “one for mum, one for dad, one for the country”. On the other hand the economy can’t spare women, so time out of the workforce to rear children is no longer deemed acceptable.
What does this mean for our children? For many it means institutionalisation in long-day-care centres (our 21st Century orphanages) from the tender age of six weeks old until they transfer into the next institution — school — at age five! Because of the prevailing ideology, many people believe that childcare is no bad thing, at worst a little overcrowded and noisy, at best a positive socialising experience for their child.
But an increasing body of scientific knowledge now validates the approach practised for centuries in the world’s indigenous communities, often labelled “attachment parenting”, in which a child is kept physically and emotionally close to a very few intimately related adults for the first years of its life. Although it’s hard to duplicate this child-rearing model in our society, smaller groups in pre-school years will go some way to meeting what is required.
You simply cannot grow up to be a dignified, loving, responsive and responsible adult if you have never been treated with dignity, been loved unconditionally, responded to rationally and been trusted with responsibility. If the development of these traits is stunted or absent, in your formative years, and all you know is the confined company of your ignorant, neglected and bewildered peers, you will not have the emotionally security and mental stability which are so necessary in facing the demands of a complex society.
Professor Fiona Stanley, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald (March 15, 2005), puts it like this:
“What’s happened on the scientific front is our new understanding of the rapid development of the brain in the first five years of life. The basis for a child’s thinking and reasoning, language, social, emotional and physical skills, is laid down during this time.
“How the brain mechanisms are sculpted or modified is affected by the child’s experiences. Good environments improve these connections. Poor environments brought about by a lack of care or stimulation disrupt brain development and put the child at risk. We know that this is a critical period that can affect a child’s life course.”
Another researcher, Dr Lise Eliot,5 supports this view of child development:
Cognitive development is the product of two interacting influences — brain growth and experience — both of which exert their greatest impact during the first few years of life. Remember that the brain triples in size in the first year alone and is virtually fully grown by the time a child enters kindergarten. Experience, of course, accrues throughout life, but it is infinitely more potent in the earliest months and years, when the synapses are still forming and the brain is at the height of its plasticity.
We are beginning to realise how very important those early years are for each child’s future life course and yet we insist, as a society, on herding our children into predominantly for-profit centres which have large child-to-adult ratios and where cutting corners to increase profits underpins decision-making rather than what is really good for the children.
Childcare centre problems
A report in the Sunday Telegraph (May 13, 2005), identified some major problems in the childcare sector: 14% of centres failed to meet national requirements on building and equipment safety, 12% failed to adequately monitor children’s development and learning, 11% had unsatisfactory hygiene and food-handling standards. Carers in some centres are responsible for up to ten toddlers at a time.
A Sydney Morning Herald (March 12, 2006) investigation found: “Childcare centres regularly fall below basic standards but parents are not alerted, even when inspectors uncover neglect, poor hygiene, too few staff or unsafe play equipment... One centre in the northern suburbs breached 24 licence conditions, had unsafe glass, dangerous play equipment and inadequate facilities for changing nappies. In the Cumberland and Prospect area one centre breached over 40 conditions... Staff also failed to check the premises thoroughly at the end of each day to ensure no child was left behind.” Not exactly a happy, healthy environment to grow up in.
It is a sad reflection of how little we care, as a society, about our future generations, that childcare workers in private centres are among the lowest paid workers in our community. They are currently paid $13 an hour. Childcare workers earn as little as $507 a week before tax. Many are loathe to take sick leave as they know their duties will have to be loaded onto already overworked colleagues, so they come to work sick.
Many parents take their children to day care even when the children are sick because parents cannot take time off work. So diseases are rife and children and carers are teary, homesick and stressed much of the time. Is this really what we want for our children’s crucial early years??
How can we expect the products of this system to suddenly treat us and each other with dignity, respect and humanity when they have never experienced that treatment themselves?
The truth is not palatable and is not in step with current ideology, so instead parents are inundated with glossy, quasi-educational propaganda. The childcare market is quickly becoming dominated by a few big players who are experts at spin. One, ABC Childcare, dubbed the “McDonalds of childcare” has already taken over twenty percent of childcare places in Australia and it has plans to both dominate the childcare “business” and move “up” into for-profit primary and secondary schooling.
So after anything up to five years of surviving long-day-care, our children move on to “big school” and things go from bad to worse. Of course there is some fantastic teaching and learning happening in our State schools and many quiet miracles happen unacknowledged and uncelebrated. But by and large schools today can be pretty depressing places, and the yawning chasm between the well-resourced elite private schools and the shabby, underfunded majority adds to the sense of despair.
Teacher morale has been battered over the last decade or so with the massive shift of funding from public to private schools and the attendant resourcing problems such a deliberate policy brings. Educational standards are continually under attack, and while student achievement in our public schools compares favourably internationally, many students are ill equipped to take advantage of what our schools offer them. There is also chronic underfunding of universities and TAFE colleges, foreshadowing a cloudy future for our academically talented students. Adding to these woes is the dog-eat-dog world of the workplace which is slowly but surely eroding the collaborative, sharing culture of the classroom.
There is widespread acceptance in the community that the world is changing rapidly and that our children will live in a world where they will need very different life and work skills from those we learnt at school. And yet very little in the structure of schools, the content of the lessons, or in the programming of the school day has changed to meet these new demands. Class sizes are still horrendous, an average of thirty (but often more) in a class in years 3 to 6, (the formative years for literacy and numeracy acquisition) and composite classes are unavoidable in the State system.
The formal learning models we subject our children to have an efficiency rate of 5% to 10%6 in what has been described as the “foie-gras factory of education” where children simply attend school to be stuffed with facts and figures without any regard for their personal interests or abilities, or their individual rates or styles of learning, or the relevance of that information for their present or future lives.
In his classic 1968 study, Life in Classrooms the American anthropologist Philip Jackson showed that children spent 50% of their time at school waiting. In a follow-up study Roland Meighan, formerly a special Professor of Education at Nottingham University, and now Director of the Educational Heretics Press timed primary school students in the UK and found that 60% of their time was waiting for something to happen.7 And when they were not waiting, the constant disruptions to the lesson, and the unsettled behaviour of other students makes it almost impossible for the children to actually learn anything.
As early as 1964 the American educationalist John Holt developed the thesis that the traditional school system is not just flawed but potentially disastrous for child development. His thesis triggered an international debate on educational reform. In his book How Children Fail he compared the stress that many children experience in the traditional classroom to battle fatigue and concluded: “To feel you are helping to make children less intelligent is bad enough without having to wonder if you may be helping to make them neurotic too.”
More and more studies on the development of the child’s brain have provided scientific proof that the early progressive alternative education theorists such as Rudolph Steiner and Maria Montessori were correct in their unorthodox approaches to schooling. Both saw the importance of a small student-to-teacher ratio and of encouraging each child to explore and research, following their natural inquisitiveness to develop and discover knowledge. Our school curricula today are far too prescriptive, and children rightly react against this.
And this is where capitalism’s cynical game with parents comes into play again. If you care enough about your child’s education — the politicians argue — then we give you the freedom to choose an alternative, i.e. a private school. We will give you the option of a State system if you are too uncaring, too ill-informed or too poor to choose anything better, but it’s entirely up to you. The push towards privatisation in the economy (think Telstra, Medicare, Snowy Hydro...) is nowhere as emotionally charged as the push towards private education.
In a commentary on Higher School Certificate results, Adele Horin summarised the dilemma many parents face: “You cannot blame parents for being swept up in a moral panic over education. More than ever, education and formal skills dictate how people fare in the new economy. To the credentialed go the spoils...like it or not, the new economy is tough on people who lack good education or skills in high demand. More than ever, they will find it hard to share the full-time, secure jobs that underpin marriage, home ownership and happy, healthy children. The era ahead of deracinated trade unions and enhanced employer power over the weakest will only intensify the race to accrue qualifications, skills and bargaining power.”8
So children in Australia today can essentially go down one of two paths. The “hothouse”, pressure-cooker path of expensive private schools, the child constantly burdened with the weight of parental expectations and society’s ambitions. Or they can flounder in under-resourced schools amongst peers who belittle school achievement and think “further qualifications” means a three-week bar course. Of course, neither is a decent, fair path and it is little wonder our young people are disillusioned, cynical and alienated.
So where to now?
It’s a bleak vision but it’s no exaggeration. Go into any one of the hundreds of primary schools in the working class suburbs of our cities and towns — volunteer to help with “remedial reading” or canteen duty — and you will see the heartbreaking reality: children who could so easily be happy, confident, clever, friendly and enthusiastic. Look at the dark circles under the eyes (awake late at night listening to mum and dad fighting), the unwashed hair (parents not home to supervise bath time), the overweight or skinny bodies (too much junk food or not enough money for food), the American cartoon logos on everything (TV culture is the only “culture” they know), the struggle to hold a pen or pair of scissors properly (poor fine-motor skills), the inability to pay attention for any reasonable length of time (i.e. long enough to actually learn something properly), then ask yourself what we all could and should be doing to make these children’s lives better now and in the future, and to make the outcomes better for society as a whole.
Paradoxically most of the things we can all do to create solutions to the problems of our youth don’t require us to go anywhere near a child or childcare centre or a school. Here are some of the things we can all do for our children right now:
1) One of the most effective things we should be doing to ameliorate our children’s lives is to fight against the Federal Governments IR laws and workplace changes. We must demand that parents be allowed to care for their children, and nurture family life, work family-friendly hours and have proper time to spend with their children. Part of that struggle must be a demand for decent wages and a return to a legitimate wages tribunal so that parents can afford to pay for children’s basic needs. We need to campaign to reverse the casualisation of the economy as casuals now make up 30% of the total workforce. The loss of a parent’s right to sick leave, family leave, and paid holidays affects children first and foremost.
2) We must lobby for the provision of public housing. The escalating costs of mortgages and rents are destroying stable family life, are forcing parents to work longer and longer hours, and mean that thousands of children are living in sub-standard conditions, both physically and emotionally. Many thousands of children are currently homeless. This must be unacceptable in “the lucky country”.
3) There must be a greater enhancement of publicly-funded schooling. Funding should be geared to redressing educational and social disadvantage and special funding must be earmarked for early intervention. Every child must have free access to a certain number of hours of quality pre-school and kindergarten education in the years before formal schooling starts.
4) We must demand the provision of top-quality, publicly-funded and publicly-accountable childcare, so that those parents who wish or need to return to work early know their children are spending time in a safe, nurturing and enriched environment.
5) We must lobby for increased funding for current child and family support services and we must do all we can to bring about a reduction in violence and aggressive behaviour towards children, around children and in our wider society generally. This must include campaigning for many more full-time, decently paid employment opportunities.
These are quite specific things we all could and should be doing right now and with 2007 being an election year this is a very opportune time to be lobbying politicians and raising these issues in the political arena.
Ultimately what our children and their children and their children really need is our long-term commitment to a political activism which refashions our whole society along humanitarian lines, so that people’s needs, and especially children’s needs, are given high priority. This necessarily means challenging the power and privileges wielded by corporations and breaking their stranglehold on the economic and social policy directions they currently exercise. Capitalism is a barrier to the real fulfilment of people’s needs.
It is the individualism, and dog-eat-dog competitiveness essential to capitalism that are so evident in our young people today and as governments abrogate more of their social responsibilities, more people are forced to adopt these qualities needed for survival in the 21st Century. That is one lesson our children are learning all too quickly, and it is a lesson Australian society is forcing them to learn at an ever-younger age.
We have only to look at the third world to see how far capitalism is prepared to take child exploitation. Why should we imagine that somehow those conditions couldn’t apply here to our children?
So the next time some oaf spills coke on you as he jostles you aside to grab the last remaining seat on the bus, casually yelling four-letter abuse to his best mate, don’t scowl and wonder “what is the world coming to?”
Instead, remember where he has come from, the future he is facing and the society you helped create for him to grow up in. Redirect your anger. E-mail that politician, telephone that talk-show host, demonstrate against the IR laws, take ballot-box revenge on the political system that has legislated our child-neglecting society. Be an activist for a child-friendly, future-friendly world!