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Full text of the Good Childhood Report afterword

Monday 2nd February 2009

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, as vice-president of the Children's Society and patron of the Good Childhood Inquiry, has written an afterword to the report "A Good Childhood: Searching for values in a competitive age".

Afterword by Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury


A few days before the final draft of this report arrived on my desk, there had been an intriguing media flurry over, of all things, a poem in the English curriculum of secondary schools.  Carol Ann Duffy's poem about a frustrated, angry and confused teenager leaving the house with a knife in his or her pocket had been the subject of a small number of complaints on the grounds that it somehow colluded with or 'normalised' knife-carrying, at a time when knife crime involving teenagers had risen to a very disturbing level.  One education authority had duly banned the poem, and predictable controversy followed.

The debate was intriguing because it seemed to trade on two of the most powerful and least helpful elements in our thinking about children and young people in this society. On the one hand, the child is appallingly vulnerable, mentally as well as physically; the chief need of a child is protection from what will assault and corrupt.  On the other hand, the child is potentially menacing; the condition of many or most of our young people at the moment is almost feral, and society needs to be protected from them.  Clear messages must be sent about what society will and will not tolerate.

To be concerned about protecting children is entirely right.  The last decade has alerted all of us to some of the ways in which we have betrayed children by not securing them against assault and abuse in various contexts, and no-one can be complacent in this area.  Likewise, it is right to feel with some urgency that a youth subculture in which extreme reactive violence is normal is a terrible thing and needs to be confronted.  But dealing responsibly with these anxieties needs some reality checking and some scrutiny of the mythology of panic.  Perhaps above all, it needs some careful listening to how children and young people themselves experience and think about who they are and where they are.  It needs to assume that our young people are - no less than adults – capable of being intelligent.

The Good Childhood Inquiry has attempted to work on this assumption, and it has painted a detailed and compelling picture of the intelligence of the young people who have contributed to it.  It resolutely refuses to give an apocalyptic analysis of a generation out of control; but what it does is to turn a sharp eye on the society in which children are being raised and ask just how it has become so tone-deaf to the real requirements of children.  It challenges us about why words like love, happiness and stability have come to sound either bizarre or dull to so many adults, when in fact they are the necessary iron rations for maturity, sense, empathy and everything else needed for a balanced human existence alongside others.

There has been some understandable mockery of the idea that there should be classes in 'happiness'; but we might well wonder why it is that the suggestion was ever made – why it had come to seem that the concept wasn't obvious.  And without a coherent sense of what makes for long term human well-being, the educating of a new generation is hamstrung from the start.  The report doesn't quite say that we are without such a coherent sense, but it notes a whole range of things which strongly suggest that there is a huge amount of ground to make up.  In particular, our attention is drawn to the effect of obsessive testing in the educational process and how it works for the interests of some parents and some schools, but not in the interests of the children; to the equally obsessive drive to co-opt children into the market place by intensive advertising; to our casual attitude in the UK towards preparing young people in their mid-teens for a working environment by solid investment in post-school training.  These are social habits that might have been deliberately designed to minimise confidence and a steady sense of well-being.  But behind these and other specifics, there lie deeper troubles.  We tolerate levels of arbitrary violence in our entertainment that have a debasing effect on everyone's imagination.  We shy away from confronting the cost that may be involved in preserving stability in our relationships.  Despite serious efforts to change the situation, we remain a gravely unequal society, with less social mobility than comparable countries, and the effects of poverty still fall disproportionately on the young.  We are deeply in thrall to individualism, says the report, and this hampers our capacity really to put ourselves at the service of the growth and safety of the new generation. 

In short, this report is telling us that adults have to change if children are to be better cared for and their welfare better secured.  But there are no simple scapegoats here, as if targeting one particular group for blame would help us move on.  A good example is what is said here about working parents.  It may be tempting to say that the root of many problems lies in the fact that too many mothers of small children are in regular employment and to suggest that the solution lies in a return to what is fondly imagined to be the traditional domestic pattern.  But while there are undoubtedly some negative effects for children over two years old being in group childcare, the two salient issues identified are, first, what we take for granted about work itself – both in terms of our attitudes to our own careers and in terms of what working patterns are encouraged by employers – and second, what kind of supplementary care is available when parents are working.  Group childcare is not the only option: families, networks of friends or neighbours, informal associations, actually take up a good deal of the requirement here (as in fact they have done in more 'traditional' cultural contexts), and fewer negative results are visible.


But what this does is to focus our attention on the context in which child-rearing is happening.  If we live in an environment where employers are habitually insensitive to family issues and needs, or in an environment where parents have not had the chance to build up networks of support, then the family with two working parents will be running some risks.  If we do not want to run those risks, a good many things will have to change in attitudes and policies.

There are two striking aspects of the responses of many of the young people interviewed for this project which sharpen up this diagnosis further.  The majority of these young people are passionately committed to the importance of friendship and keenly aware of the impact on their lives of family breakup (not least of the absence of a father).  These concerns are in fact connected: children recognise that they need time and opportunity to work at their own relationships; and they suffer when adult relationships around them fail.  The implication is that adults too need the time and freedom to work at sustaining relationships; but the climate we live in is not particularly friendly to this.

There is certainly no quick solution when we are speaking about a large scale cultural phenomenon: laws cannot make marriages work.  But what they can do is to give all reasonable support to men and women who want to be responsibly and generously there for their children, and who need to be helped to resist the sort of pressures that destroy relationships through overwork and economic hardship.  Beyond this, we are in the territory of changing hearts.  We need to develop a culture in which people are not only interested in their right to have a child but in how they guarantee the conditions in which a child can be brought up in security and emotional confidence.  The report rightly stresses how essential it is that couples understand that their commitment to each other is absolutely bound up with the welfare of their children; so that working to secure that commitment is part of what is owed to those children.  If we are serious about children's welfare, we need not only access to the right kind of training in parenting skills but a serious shared willingness as a society to educate young people about committed partnership, its importance and its challenges.  In plain terms, it will not serve us as a society, and it will not serve the growing generation, if we simply regard marriage as just one option in the marketplace of lifestyles.  When this report argues for better and earlier sex education for our young people, it is not talking about an expanded curriculum of biological or even sociological instruction, or about the premature exposure of children to all the complexities of sexual practice.  It is very specifically advocating a style of sex education that focuses on emotional maturity and self-awareness – with all that this means in terms of seeing this area of our lives in the context of adult and faithful responsibility.


So many aspects of this report bring us back to the same basic question.  How can we raise confident, happy and creative human beings if we do not have some shared ideas about what human maturity and happiness look like?  More sharply, how can we do this if we have no notion of what it is to 'educate our emotions'?  The phrase is likely to be a rather unfamiliar one, sounding presumptuous or utopian or just authoritarian and bossy.  But the truth is that when human beings act out their individual feelings without reflection and scrutiny, they are likely very soon to become incapable of living with each other; there is enough 'reality television' these days to provide dismally abundant evidence of this.  And, that being said, it is interesting that another strand of reality TV has pointed up the issue from a different angle.  'The Monastery' initiated a succession of programmes in which an assortment of individuals spends time in an environment where a fixed rhythm of life combines with a critical scrutiny of passing feelings.  It was made very clear both how very hard we are likely to find it to see ourselves and our emotions from a bit of a distance, and how transforming and expanding it can be when we learn to do so.  'Educating' emotion is to do with this sort of patient realism about ourselves, with its corollary of empathy with others and patience with them as well.

Recent studies of childhood have underlined how the lack of dependable and loving parenting in the first years, even months, of life results in an emotional narrowing, an empathy deficit, which is very hard to overcome.  It has been shown – by researchers like Sue Gerhardt – that this involves a physiological dysfunction, where certain neural channels are never opened.  The failure to engage with the independent psychological reality that is the child's consciousness because of a fixation on one's own needs replicates in the child the same incapacity to wait and to empathise, often with specially disastrous results in adolescence and early adulthood.  The truth is that learning to see clearly one's own emotions and creating that element of distance from them is to create some space for the reality of a human other.  Everyone except the most severely mentally disturbed learns a measure of this for their survival; the mature adult is the one who has made it an unobtrusive habit – and who, because of that, has some freedom to engage with and take responsibility for others. 

Which is why, recalling the debate mentioned at the start of these reflections, tackling a poem with an emotionally challenging content in an environment where responsible adults are around to 'contain' some of the fallout is the opposite of irresponsible collusion with violence.  When children are routinely exposed in the media to violence of word and action, without any mediation or analysis, it is bizarre that the literary representation of circumstances that could lead to violence should be so shocking to some.  Leading a child to think through the feelings of another is not to assault the child's innocence or to normalise those feelings; it is to recognise (to stress the point once again) the intelligence of the child and to try and enlarge it so that he or she understands both their own feelings and those of others better – so that, perhaps, the child comes to see something of where the line is, in responsible human life, between experiencing passionate emotion and acting on it without thought.  To deny the possibility of nourishing that sort of intelligence is to risk yet more uneducated emotion and reactive behaviour.


This report is not ashamed to put love at the centre of the child's needs – and the adult's too: love not as warm feeling alone, but as long-term commitment to someone else's well-being as something that matters profoundly to one's own well-being.  That sort of commitment means relativising your own sense of what you as an individual need so as to discover what might be good for you and the other; and parenthood is one of the contexts where most people learn this most lastingly if they learn it at all.  It does not guarantee happiness – the world is unpredictable and often cruel – but happiness has no chance without it, and when the cruel and unpredictable occurs, there will be more resources to meet it if love has been experienced.  

The report is not a document of theology or even ethics; but it does force the reader to ask what we have in the 'bank' of mind and spirit in our culture that reinforces love and fidelity and offers some robust account of what long term human welfare looks like and what it demands.  The concern of all major religious communities with children and the family, and their heavy investment (not without controversy these days) in education, is sometimes taken to be essentially about indoctrination of children and control of sexuality (especially women's sexuality).  The moral confusions and corruptions to which religious institutions, like others, are vulnerable have meant that these motivations have been very visible.  But, to mention only the case of the Christian churches, there are deeper motivations, whose substance is relevant to plenty of people who may not share the doctrinal convictions of believers.  Although this is an independent enquiry, it has been sponsored by the Children's Society with its roots firmly in the Church's life and vision.  To the extent that it has worked out of these 'deeper motivations', it has shown clearly that they are acutely relevant to a wider public.  Of those motivations, two are particularly important, and it is worth spelling out a little why this is so.

First, the basic texts of Christian faith contain some startling statements about children (even more startling two thousand years ago than now): the child is the one from whom the adult must learn about 'the Kingdom of God'; and the one who abuses or corrupts or deceives the child is destined for the harshest of judgements.  The child not only has access to the Kingdom, s/he has a privileged place in it.  This is not romantic speculation about children trailing clouds of glory, or even a celebration of childlike innocence.  In its context, it seems to mean that it is the very powerlessness or vulnerability of the child that is important – important in securing their place of privilege, but also important as reminding the adult that receiving the news of the possibility of change, freedom, love, reconciliation, requires of the adult a degree of vulnerability and spontaneity that is normally overlaid by suspicion and self-defensiveness.  And what is most damnable in human relationships is whatever pushes this to the margins or destroys it.

Second, there has been since the beginning of Christianity a conviction that faithful human relationship in marriage is a reflection of the faithfulness with which God relates to the universe and more specifically the faithfulness with which Jesus Christ relates to believers.  In other words, the stable family unit when it is fully what it can be makes a statement about 'how things are' – about what cannot be shaken in a world where everything seems to be mobile and uncertain.  It is true that the family can be a context of distraction from the truth, of limiting and unintelligent loyalty that blocks out the wider world – Jesus himself is brutally clear about this; but this does not alter what the family can be when it is animated by a love willing to grow beyond its own boundaries, a love confident enough not to be seeking for a retreat from a difficult larger world.

Two insights from the foundational texts of one religious faith which help explain why these issues matter to religious believers; other themes and motivations will no doubt be found in other faiths.  But in our present context they highlight issues that are of the most urgent contemporary significance.  The child is – amongst so much else – a sign of what is promised when we drop some of our obsession with defence and control; not in the name of some idealisation of unthinking action but in the name of a willingness to be taught, to be nourished and to be surprised.  And the committed family relationship is a sign, a statement of trust that there is something that cannot be invalidated or destroyed by any of the chances of the world, something which our experience of committed love gives us a glimpse of.

I said earlier that there are no quick solutions any more than there are any scapegoats in responding to the varied and sometimes troubling picture this report sketches for us.  But if we are to respond intelligently to the intelligent observations of the young people whose experience has been at the heart of this work, we shall need to be aware of the resources we have for changing both policies and attitudes.  This manifestly includes our heritage of religious belief.  But to say this is also in the same moment to put the challenge to religious communities of all kinds as to their willingness to give the care and nurture of children the priority it deserves.  There is more involved than simply defending the role of faith in education – and unless 'faith schools' show a keener than average awareness of some of the issues discussed above, they will be failing in a central aspect of their duty.  There is more involved than the defence of traditional family patterns – unless believers can show all of us ways of handling the education of emotion and of preparing people for adult commitment in relationships, all that will be seen is an agenda of anxiety, censoriousness and repression.  There is more involved than a generally welcoming attitude to the young – on its own, this can be felt as a patronising attempt to hold on to unenthusiastic members.

The report asks for more from churches and religious communities - as it does from all kinds of bodies in our society.  It asks for a coherent vision of how human beings grow and become capable of giving and deserving trust, for unremitting advocacy on behalf of those who are growing up in poverty, for a systematic willingness to pay attention to how children and young people actually talk about themselves, and perhaps above all for a realistic and grateful appreciation of who and what our young people really are.  In a climate where the mixture of sentimentalism and panic makes discussion of children's issues so difficult, this report will bring a thoughtful and hopeful perspective.  For the sake of the rising generation and their successors, I hope it will be welcomed and acted upon.       

© Rowan Williams 2009                

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