Are parents the poisoners?

By Camila Cavendish (THE TIMES, 14/09/06):

“STOP ACTING like a child!” I heard myself screaming at 3am one recent morning, outraged and tearful as one small person yet again poked the other awake. My four-year-old looked quizzical. To which of us, he seemed to be wondering, was I referring?

I was reminded of this shameful episode when reading this week’s claims that our children are growing up too fast. One hundred and ten experts, in areas ranging from infant massage to mathematics, have signed a letter urging that we stop feeding children a toxic combination of junk food, television, grown-up clothing, computer games and competitive schooling. Which is quite a roll call of fashionable gripes.

There is definitely something in all this. But it is important to separate it out from nostalgia and alarmism. I nodded gravely at the radio on Tuesday when Michael Morpurgo, the sainted author of children’s books,spoke passionately about children needing time to dream. But I was baffled by Baroness Greenfield burbling about “icons replacing ideas”. She kept calling for “conceptual frameworks” to offset the evils of technology.

We cannot turn the clock back to the days when the world stopped to Listen With Mother at 1.45. We cannot wish technology back into its Xbox. The internet has brought alive everything from nature to molecules to engineering. It has enabled pupils in some classrooms to learn at their own pace, not feeling they are a drag on the rest or waiting for everyone else to catch up. That is a liberation.

But are other bits of technology — TV shows, videos, computer games — bad for the brain? Michael Shayer, Professor of Applied Psychology at King’s College London, claims that 11 and 12-year-olds are now two to three years behind where they were 15 years go in terms of cognitive and conceptual development. In his volume and heaviness test, children are asked to hold a brass block and a Plasticine block of identical size, one in each hand. In 1976, 57 per cent of boys and 27 per cent of girls realised that the Plasticine block would displace the same amount of water, if immersed, as the brass block. Thirty years later only 17 per cent of either sex get it right. That is a staggering change. But Professor Shayer is reluctant to speculate on the causes. He thinks a decline in hands-on play, more TV and less outside play space may be factors. But he is not sure.

If the screen is a problem, why can’t adults just switch it off? You don’t need a “conceptual framework” to find the off button. What comes through every discussion on this subject is the extraordinary weakness of parents, who simply can’t face the hassle of saying no. And when they try, they face increasingly strong resistance. For the real, hidden danger of many TV channels and video games is that they are designed to feed an anti-authority culture.

Sue Palmer’s book Toxic Childhood quotes the psychologist Mark Crispin-Miller: “It’s part of the official advertising world view that your parents are creeps, teachers are weirdos and idiots, authority figures laughable and nobody can really understand children except the corporate sponsor.” This may sound overblown, unless you’ve watched Nickelodeon. The Rugrats are pulling the rug from under parents who weren’t too sure of their footing anyway. Guess which TV character a recent BBC poll of 5,000 parents found was the “role model” who most influenced their children? Gulp. Bart Simpson.

On CBeebies, the BBC’s channel for children, I recently watched two dim, nasty elves mocking a wise old owl who was trying to teach them. It was Elves 1 Owl 0, every time. I switched it off. I don’t intend to make my particular perch any more precarious.

Few of us want to admit that we use TV as an anaesthetic, so we gratefully guzzle the line that it is educational. Yet most programming is surely far too hyperactive, rushing from one segment to the next, to be anything of the kind. Blue’s Clues, the American series, is the only one I have found that is designed to help children to concentrate rather than lure them with perpetual distraction. Each episode is supposed to be watched on five consecutive days before moving on to the next — so by the end of the week children know the songs and stories and are able to recap with the presenter what they have learnt. Unusually for such series, it has no subplot for parents. Children adore it. Parents are bored stiff. But perhaps that is the point.

I have always believed that boredom is a great stimulator. Not fearful boredom, not the waiting in an empty house for the key to turn in the lock, but the kind of boredom that inspires children to read books, build boats in cupboards, and sail to a make-believe island. Boredom is cheap to create: just switch off the gadgets and limit the plastic toys. Imaginations soar. But parents must be prepared to be bored themselves, to be told what role to play, not to control the game, to endure repetition after repetition after repetition. And many of us, obsessed with using time “productively”, are not.

Dreaming is probably easiest when you feel secure. Yet just as they are now assailed by a host of characters on screen, many children also face a constantly shifting cast of characters in real life. I am not talking just about family breakdown. The turnover of staff in schools, at playgroups and crèches is momentous. Even top-class nannies often move on after a few years. One told me of a four-year-old who said every Monday morning: “See you on Friday, Mummy.” We working parents are always nipping in, nipping out. How does that feel from the perspective of the one who stays put?

Children are adaptable. I would imagine that most feel far less threatened by changes in technology than adults. But more so by changes in people they have become attached to. There is no point in getting hysterical about the pace of change. We parents cannot stop it. But we can do more to make children’s lives more stable and predictable.