Sins of the fathers (… and the mothers)

The Good Childhood Inquiry claims that almost all of the problems now facing young people stem from the culture of “excessive individualism” that has developed in recent decades.

Daily Telegraph 2nd Feb

I know I’m not unique in having a childhood in which my father was, usually, just a tuft of thinning hair sticking up over the newspaper at breakfast and the footstep that instilled a panic of correction in the evening.

In contrast, a recent BBC news interview with a manager at Asda, charting how the downturn was affecting spending, revealed that steaks were down and mince was up, all luxury items were down but the strongest sales in the shop was still children’s clothes.  “That’s the last thing people want to make cuts on,” said the manager.

Are modern parents really the awful selfish individuals this report makes them out to be?  Or are they working hard in the face of the terrible nagging guilt that this survey torments them with.  Does any parent, however wonderful, ever feel adequate?

By no stretch of the imagination did I have a deprived childhood, but I still grew up wearing hand me downs.  I didn’t play in state of the art safety-conscious colourful playgrounds but in building sites and ad hoc adventure playgrounds.  There were no theme parks or all day children’s TV channels.  I would love to have had playstation, computer games, ipods or at least parents who had been brought up on touchy-feely family shows like Roseanne and even the Simpsons rather than the war time austerity, children-seen-and-not-heard, shell shocked, post Victorian generation who brought me up.

It is hard to believe that parents really are any more selfish today than they were when I was growing up.  I’m not going to try and argue that selfishness is such a common human trait that the sooner children work out how to deal with other people’s selfishness, the more savy and able to survive in the big world they will be.

But I do see and meet parents every day who are prioritising their children and are constantly aware of them.  Practically everything we do is for our children and their wants, even if it means working away long hours to achieve these things.  Today, even the children whose families have left them shamefully uncared for have, at least, a swathe of backups and schemes to try to prevent them falling through the net and, when all else fails, childline.

But, if parents are no more selfish or even less selfish, than they used to be, why are children aparently so unhappy with their lot?  Could it possibly be that they simply have higher expectations then any generation before?

Maybe children are less fulfilled actually because parents have proritised them so much.  Perhaps these selfish venal little beasts have realised that they can be more demanding and are disappointed when parents don’t follow through.

Yes consumerism doesn’t help.  What goes on in a child’s head is pure logic: If there is a disneyland or nintendo, and they look like they’re fun things for children, why don’t I have it?

Perhaps the ideas of unconditional love are difficult for families who have never experienced the fear and poverty of wartime to drive home the primacy of family and love over material accumulation.

But it is simply vicious and unhelpful to criticise parents who, on the whole, do want what’s best for their children in this difficult age of excess.  The downturn has been a blessing for many parents who have struggled to find a reason to deny and curb childhood consumerism.

The report that criticises mothers who go to work rather than live below the breadline but “with love” is just irresponsible and, simply, wrong.  Parental absence is a perrenial factor of childhood, whether it is war or work that takes parents away.  Just witness children’s literature from its beginnings in the Victorian period and note how little parents are involved in the stories of and for children.  The distant Blyton Mother or her deus ex machina Uncle, did Alice even have parents?  Or in fairy stories, the father who goes or the mother who dies and is replaced by a competitive stepmother.

In many ways the absence heart fonder/familiarity breeding contempt cliche spins it right.  Often we value our more absent parents because the limited time with them is precious and our memories are clearer rather than the blur of constant presence.

For anybody who has seen themselves in this report and finds guilt touching their nerves, take heart.  No matter how much you give your children albeit in time or gifts or love or attention, they are always as aware of you as you are of them – it will stay with them for their whole lives.  Remember, as they become adults and want to define their own individualism they will always blame you for their flaws and problems and you will have to bear that.  But that is love, and which ever path you picked, love is why you do what you do.