2009 has been designated the year of the child and at this GB, we shall hear a great deal on this theme.
Let me then start with the words of Jesus on children, since He had some powerful things to say about them. In St March 10:14-15:
“Let the children come to me; do not try to stop them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will never enter it”.
And the Gospel of Matthew 18:2-5
“He called a child, set him in front of them, and said, “Truly I tell you: unless you turn round and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself and becomes like this child will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, and whoever receives one such child in my name receives me”.
In order to understand these sayings of Jesus, one has to know something of the background against which He spoke. In Jesus’ day, there was no such thing as privacy. There would be children everywhere, and Jesus’ open air ministry would have attracted them all the time.
They could be a nuisance (don’t we all know it!) and Jesus’ society was not sentimental about them. They saw children in terms of their potential. Children were a blessing – not because of what they were, but because of what they would become. Be patient and they would grow up into something worth having in the end – insurance for their parents’ old age, someone to look after them in the future.
No other teacher in the ancient world did what Jesus did – that is, he used children as examples of what adults should become.
No-one else insisted, as Jesus did, that children deserved at least as much respect as anyone else, and this was not because they were valuable assets for the future, but because there is something in a child that is closer to the kingdom of God than all the alleged wisdom and maturity of the adult.
He didn’t say what these qualities were and we mustn’t attribute to Him ideas that are quite modern about the innocence, spontaneity and freshness of children. But we do know from His teaching what qualities of character Jesus did value. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, the gentle, those who have a passion for fairness, who show kindness, whose hearts are pure, peacemakers”.
Can we, as adults, say that we are more likely to be these things than children?
So we can say that Jesus believed that children were not just an asset for the future or a commitment to be undertaken for the sake of society. They were of infinite value as children. They deserved as much respect and care as any other human being. They have qualities that may bring them closer to the kingdom of heaven than a great many adults. Children have an inalienable value quite independent of their use to us. Everything else I say in this address needs to be seen against that background.
The global recession has hit hard in Wales. The social impact of unemployment can be appalling. Those who are most at risk will suffer most. We already have around 30% economic inactivity and generational unemployment in some areas. As recession bites ever deeper, financial crisis meetings are more commonly held in people’s homes than in the boardroom, but it is a crisis that comes at a cost to us all and not just to the families most affected. It is well documented that children who grow up in poverty are more likely to be in poor health, have learning and behavioural difficulties, underachieve at school, become pregnant at too early an age, have lower skills and aspirations, and be low paid or welfare dependent. Recent research by the Joseph Rowntree foundation puts the costs of the outcomes of child poverty at £25 billion a year to the economy, or more than £1,000 per household.
Rescuing children from poverty is therefore not merely an issue of morality and justice or even a matter of choice but also an economic imperative. In Wales, according to the National Assembly 29% of children live in relative poverty – defined as households with less than 60% average income. Relative poverty is the most corrosive kind of poverty because it excludes people from the minimum acceptable way of life in the country in which they live and when levels are high it makes for a very unequal society.
It is no coincidence that in the 2007 UNICEF survey of rich countries, the US and the UK, the two countries with the highest levels of relative child poverty came bottom of the table of child well-being. Hungary and the Czech Republic fared much better in the survey, despite being poorer countries. In other words it is not just being poor that matters but the inequality and exclusion that comes from relative poverty. The UK as a whole has a shocking 22% of children living in relative poverty.
We are constantly being assailed by appalling statistics about the state of children’s well-being in the UK. At least 300 young children die each year from violence and neglect in their homes. Since the baby P case the number of children taken into care has risen to 630 per month – an increase of 60%. Even in March 2007 there were 60,000 ‘looked after’ children. These are statistics with which many of you will be only too familiar.
My question is this: what does it mean for our values and claims to be a civilised society that at least 7,560 parents per year are a danger to their children and that there are at least 200,000 children on the At Risk Register? Yes the complex accumulated regulations are influencing how professionals respond, and yes there are questions about different training cultures and processes within social services – doomed whether they do or do not intervene. But the central question still remains – how is it that so many parents can be incapable of parenting a precious and vulnerable child without neglect or abuse?
Over a century ago the industrialist and social campaigner Joseph Rowntree named the main social evils of his time as poverty, war, slavery, intemperance, opium, impurity and gambling. In 2007 the Rowntree foundation held a consultation to find out what people saw as the modern day social evils. The social evils that worry people most today are individualism, greed, and a decline of community. This links in with the findings of the Good Childhood Report, published by the Children’s Society this year.
For their Report, the Children’s Society interviewed over 10,000 children from all strata and conditions of society – rich and poor; high achieving and failing; in custody, looked after and in families. To their responses were added those of 20,000 other people – including professionals and parents. All the responses were then evaluated by an expert panel. The report writers concluded that excessive individualism is the root cause of our children’s problems. Excessive individualism is defined as the belief that the prime duty of the individual is to make the most of his or her own life, rather than to contribute to the good of others. Of course some degree of individualism is necessary for survival. We would all see individual choice and self-determination as necessary for a good life, but this has to be balanced with a proper sense of care and responsibility for others.
Traditional beliefs have been weakened over recent decades and excessive individualism has filled the void. It is the fuel that feeds materialism and greed and enables us to tolerate the inequalities in society. It also leads to the decline of community and moral values. The quest for personal success and personal happiness is too often gained at the expense of others. To my mind it is no coincidence that the UK and the US, the countries where the pursuit of private interest and success are probably most evident, are not only at the bottom of UNICEF’s table of children’s well-being, but that these are the countries where our world economic crisis began, fuelled by greed and lack of regulation in the financial sector.
We all know that the real needs of children are love, stability and happiness. Life begins in the family, and from a child’s point of view a loving family is the key to a good start in life. The Good Childhood Report tells us that when children were asked what makes for a good life, what they wanted more than anything else was love. If children are loved and well-cared for they learn to give love and to feel good about themselves. Without love they find it difficult to give love or to empathise with others. Joseph Fritzl, despised and regularly beaten by his mother, is a stark example of this.
Seven out of ten teenagers surveyed for the Good Childhood Report agreed with the statement “Parents getting on well is one of the most important factors in raising happy children”. Only three out of ten adults agreed, but it is the teenagers who have statistics on their side. Parental conflict and separation can have a disastrous effect on children as young as 3, even though some children survive unscathed. From over 90 studies we know that on average 50% more children with separated parents have problems than children whose parents have not. This is true of a wide range of outcomes: academic achievement, self-esteem, behavioural difficulties, anxiety and depression. Yet despite all we know abut the negative effect it will have on our children, almost half of all marriages in England and Wales today will end in divorce if current trends continue. For co-habiting couples the chances of a relationship breakdown are even greater – and more couples are choosing not to marry.
60% of the adults surveyed by the Good Childhood Report agreed with the statement “nowadays parents aren’t able to spend enough time with their children” and nearly half of the adults agreed with the statement “these days more and more parents have to put their career first, even if this affects their family life”. In the IWA survey commissioned by BBC Cymru this year children placed great value on talking and being listened to, by parents in particular. Although keenly aware of this need, parents cited busy, stressful lives and work pressures as getting in the way of “quality time” with their children.
We may all know the real needs of children, but we frequently refuse to recognise that these often come at a personal cost to ourselves and our own needs and desires – be they compromises in our earning capacity or career development, or commitment to and the need to work at a less than ideal relationship. Children are not ours by right but a sacred trust. They have to be nurtured and cared for.
Let me be clear, I am not saying that a woman’s place is in the home. Fathers are no less important than mothers in a child’s life. Research shows that if fathers are more closely involved with their children, other things being equal they develop better friendships, and have more empathy, higher self-esteem, better life satisfaction and higher educational achievement. They are also less likely to be involved with crime and substance abuse. Nor am I saying that parents must stay together at all costs. Where there is a high level of conflict that cannot be resolved, or an abusive relationship, the child would obviously be better served if the parents separate. What I am saying is that we need a huge change in our thinking. Parenthood should not be embarked on lightly. It is the commitment of two people both to one another and to the child.
All relationships go through periods of strain, and some will break down, but we need a culture where parents consider whether it is in the best interests of the children to stay together and we need high quality counselling and support services readily available to help them to do so. The UK leads Europe for the proportion of young people living in single parent or step-parent families.
The problems in family life are a reflection of the malaise at the heart of society as a whole. Parents and children alike receive constant messages from society and the media that they need to possess more goods and compete successfully against others in workplaces and schools to attain the trappings their resulting wealth will bring. Values of generosity, justice and fairness become sacrificed to greed and selfishness, which in turn erode trust and a sense of community in society as a whole. In our busyness and self-absorption we have simply lost sight of the big picture.
We protect our children from “stranger danger” and traffic-filled roads by keeping them at home where they are exposed to aggressive marketing and a diet of sex and violence on TV, the internet and video games. We are constantly seeking a higher standard of living for ourselves and our children, but we will not confront the reality that there may simply be no future for our children or grandchildren if we fail to adjust our living standards and address the issue of global warming.
The problem with young people today is us – the adults, and the society we have created, and there are no quick fixes. 10 suicidal children a week in Wales ring Childline and drunkenness is more of a problem amongst teenagers in Wales than in any other part of the UK. What we need is a major cultural shift, but all we are doing at the moment is trying to deal with the effects rather than the root causes. I give you an example. We have the highest pregnancy rate in Europe. It was announced last month that the ban on advertisements for contraceptives may be lifted. That may help the statistics, but what does it do to teach young people that parenthood is an awesome responsibility that requires both love and self sacrifice from parents committed to the child and to one another. We need to be teaching these basic concepts as well as parent-craft, in our schools from an early age, particularly to those who have not experienced it first hand, and not simply informing them about the mechanics of a sexual relationship and contraception divorced from the basic concepts of love, responsibility and self-respect.
I will end where I began. The global recession will bring many problems in its wake, and will impact disproportionately on the poor and vulnerable, especially children. But hopefully it will do one good thing and that is to help make us realise the horrendous damage that self-interest and unbridled greed can do to the community as a whole. The recession is not something we can lay at the door of “them” – the drunken youngsters, unmarried mothers, knife-carrying youths, anti-social gangs or any of the other groups we blame for the ills of society. Its causes well and truly belong to “us” – comfortable Britain, and those that we are so fond of blaming for the ills of society are themselves products of a society we have created.