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Archbishop - adults need to grow up

Monday 11th April 2005

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, says that adults must face the demands of being grown up if they are to meet the needs of children.

In a lecture 'Formation: Who's bringing up our children' at Queen Mary College for the Citizen Organising Foundation, Dr Williams says:

'We can't shape the lives and minds of children without a sense of responsibility we have as adults.'

'If we want to give children a chance of experiencing childhood as they should - experiencing it as a time to learn, play, grow, in an environment of stability and security - we have to face the demands of being adults ourselves. We have to accept that growing up is about taking on the task of forming other human lives.'

The Archbishop warns that the pressures of modern life are eroding the time and space needed for the development of children as individual people and cautions that this is itself likely to lead to further problems.

'In a setting where relentless productivity is overvalued, we can forget what is needed to produce functioning human beings. We can become abusers of our children by default when we ignore the choices we can make that will better secure their stability and their sense of being seen and listened to. The result is that we seem to produce people who themselves cannot properly look or listen; and this is not a matter of pop psychology but a serious insight from those who have studied neurological development.'

A transcript of the lecture follows:

Formation: Who's bringing up our children?

A lecture for the Citizen Organising Foundation, delivered at Queen Mary College, University of London, Mile End, London.

A few years ago a book was published by Hillary Clinton under the title, It Takes a Village to Raise a Child, and while that title and some of the content reflects a slightly sentimental American approach to many of these matters, the issue that is flagged up in those words and that title is a focal one. Children are not brought up, are not educated or inducted into human society just by one or two people. The whole of the social complex of which they're part makes them the persons they are. And that is true whether we like it or not, whether we notice it or not. When a culture ignores or sidelines the question of what it actually wants to produce, what kind of human beings it actually wants to nurture, when it assumes indifference, it still educates. That is to say it still shapes a certain kind of person. And if that turns out to be not quite the sort of person we would like to see in huge quantities, well, we might have guessed.

The first exercise I want to offer this morning is an exercise in imagining what a human adult might be like. If you are asked what are the characteristics you would regard as marks of maturity, or having grown up as a human being, what would you say? Let me try a few suggestions. The human adult I imagine is someone who is aware of emotion but not enslaved by it. A human adult is someone who believes that change is possible in their own lives and the lives of those around them. A human adult is someone who is aware of fallibility and death, that is who knows they are not right about everything and that they won't live forever. An adult is someone sensitive to the cost of the choices they make, for themselves and for the people around them. An adult is someone who is not afraid of difference, who is not threatened by difference. And I would add too, an adult is someone aware of being answerable to something more than just a cultural consensus - someone whose values, choices, priorities are shaped by something other than majority votes; which is why I add - in brackets, but you'd expect me to - that I think that an awareness of the holy is an important aspect of being an adult, however you want to phrase that.

Now I think that without a working definition of maturity, whether it is that one or something like it, we can't even begin to understand the process of formation. I'll say it once more because it is worth saying: if we don't know what it is we are 'inducting' people into when we try and help them grow as humans, we cannot be surprised if chaos results.

But if we begin with working definitions of maturity of the kind I've suggested, that gives us a way of looking quite hard, and sometimes quite painfully, at the things in our environment that push us away from being adults. If we start from that kind of list of features of maturity we might come up with a list something like this, identifying the things that stop us growing up. What if we live in a climate where our emotions are indulged but never educated? That is to say where we never take a thoughtful perspective on how we feel, that brings in other people and their needs. What if we live in an environment where apathy and cynicism are the default positions for most people on issues of public concern? What if our environment is short on dialogue and learning and self-questioning? What if it is characterised by a fear and a denial of human limitations, by a fundamentalist belief in the possibility of technology in solving our problems for example? By the constant bracketing or postponing of the recognition that we have limits and that we are going to die. What if our environment is passive to the culture of the global market, simply receiving that constant streams of messages which flows out from producers and marketers? Because one of the things that implies is that the world ought to be one in which difference doesn't matter very much because we are all flattened out, as you might say, in the role of consumers. What if our environment is characterised by intense boredom and an addiction to novelty? Or characterised by an obsessive romanticising of victim status, and a lack of empathy? What if it is characterised by secularism, that is to say by an approach to the world which is tone deaf about the sacred and the mysterious?

Well I don't really need to put all those 'what ifs' in because I think you will probably recognise that this is not a million miles away from the environment we, in fact, inhabit. But I think we need a sharp-edged diagnosis here, to help us identify that these things are not just 'problems' in a vague way, they are actually the things which stop us growing up. When we live in a debased environment of gossip, inflated rhetoric, non-participation, celebrity obsession and vacuous aspiration, it's not surprising that we have a challenge in the area of formation, human formation.

And the way in which that challenge shows itself is in a number of ways with one in particular which needs looking at in this context. It's nothing new, it's twenty four years since David Elkind wrote a book called The Hurried Child (1981), a book which was perhaps one of the first to identify the phenomenon of rushing children through childhood so that they could be assimilated as quickly as possible into the commercial and sexual habits of supposed adulthood. That haste to consumerise and sexualise childhood has become more and more hectic in the intervening years.

It would be interesting to look at some of the literary classics of the last 20 or 30 years including many of the works that have played such a significant part in pushing forward the emancipatory agenda of the modern world, and asking, 'yes but what about the child?' I re-read, a couple of years ago, Doris Lessing's masterpiece, The Golden Notebook, one of the foundational classics of feminism and a work of genius and poignancy. But, as we've already been reminded this morning, we have to bear in mind something which that book itself faces much more honestly than many do. And that is the cost in terms of the formation of another generation when children are so caught up into the energy of adult dramas that they do not have the space, the period of latency, in which to be securely children.

And if we want to give children a chance of experiencing childhood as they should, experiencing as a time to learn, play, grow in an environment of stability and security, we have to face the demands of being adults ourselves. We have to accept that growing up is about taking on the task of forming other human lives.

Stability - a difficult issue because in an environment where change and novelty have a kind of glow around them, stability isn't immediately a very attractive word. It sounds like being static, being stuck. But whether we're talking about the family or about the community overall, it remains true that people do not grow freely and courageously unless there are things in their environment they can trust, primary among those things of course being people in their environment they can trust, and primary among those people being their primary carers, their parents. A trustworthy environment is what we are talking about, and were reminded very sharply a few minutes ago of how economic instability in an environment, the effects currently of the problems facing Rover, can impact on a whole nurturing environment.

The questions raised about stability are not only then about domestic issues, they are about public ones. And among the question that have to be raised here, there would have to be some very, very tough questions about advertising and children. You've seen that in the superb drama that was put before us at the beginning of this session. We all know, those of us who are parents, something of the consumer pressures that there are around in what is now called 'pester power'. What is a proper regime of regulation for advertising aimed at children? It is a question of some urgency. If we are interested, corporately and socially, in creating and maintaining an environment where pressure on children is regarded as unjust - I use the word deliberately - then the right of children to justice involves challenging many of the habits of the advertising world in respect of children.

Again we've heard something already this morning about that crucial question around our culture of work. How do we stop rewarding neglect? We are concerned, rightly concerned, that people should have choices about their work. We have rightly moved away from a situation in which women were assumed to have no legitimate choices about their work. But the story does not end there because we have moved in very many parts of our society to a situation where there are active incentives to take carers away from the home.

One of the issues I remember vividly from my time in South Wales was a moment when one of the major local employers in South Wales began offering a set of special arrangements to facilitate women working at weekends. A number of community organisations protested vehemently at this, noting that the weekend was still, in that particular context, a time when families did things together and that there was a deeply unscrupulous element in that particular case of making the family 'market-friendly', to pick up Madeline's phrase.

How do we stop rewarding neglect; giving incentives for the breakdown of stable domestic environments? And then, in the world of education, how do we foster a conversational atmosphere in conversation; how do we make room for dialogue? There's a very fine recent book, Positive Childhood: Educating Young Citizens, by Mildred Masheder (notice the subtitle) educating young citizens - and in the second chapter of this book she discusses different kinds of educational strategy in making people literate about how they communicate. In terms particularly of primary education, she looks at all the practices of dialogue and listening that can be built into the education process - 'circle time', and other structured practices that teach you how to communicate and to listen. And she is very severe - and rightly severe - on an educational philosophy which is obsessed with testing. It's another form of our obsession with results and productivity and it's a particularly malign one in a context where, if we are trying to educate persons, we ought to be educating in emotional and communicative literacy as well as in other kinds of literacy.

In a setting where relentless productivity is overvalued we forget what is needed to produce functioning human beings. We can become abusers of our children by default when we ignore the choices we can make to secure their stability, their sense of being seen and being listened to; do you remember that wonderful Children's Society poster a few years ago showing the face of a child obviously in distress, with the slogan 'What I need is a good listening to?' The result, when we ignore this, seems to be to produce people who themselves cannot properly look or listen. And that's not a matter of pop psychology, but a serious insight from those who have studied neurological development in human beings. To speak of conversation, social interaction - intelligent, understood social interaction as part of the educational process - is simply to recognise, not only that citizens are not born but made, but in one important sense, persons are not born but made. Persons are cultivated, grown, at a very literal, a very physical level. A controversial book by Sue Gerhardt - Why Love Matters: how affection shapes a baby's brain - is one that's well worth looking at in this connection. Gerhardt sets out the ways in which certain areas of the brain simply atrophy without proper social interaction. And her argument breaks through the conventional polarity between nature and nurture in education by telling us that nature is itself something which demands to be nurtured. If our potential - our literal physical potential - is to be activated, other persons are necessary; other persons who will listen engage, create trust and offer love. Neurological development needs social input and we need to break out of some of the sterile standoffs between views here.

Here is what Sue Gerhardt says on page 85 of the book:

"The weight of research now makes it quite clear that these biological systems involved in managing emotional life are all subject to social influence, particularly the influences which are present at the time of their developing most rapidly. They will develop and function better or worse depending on the nature of these early experiences,"

- and she's not afraid to raise the question already raised in our discussion this morning about home and work , a question about what is needed in a domestic environment to secure stability.

"We have swung from one unworkable situation to another, where either mothers pay or children pay the price. Betty Friedan first described the oppression of young mothers in the 1960s, suffocating in the suburbs, unable to play any social role except that of 'mom' or wife: But our current situation may be equally oppressive to babies and toddlers who are being shunted to or from nurseries or child minding groups, plonked in front of videos, fitting around the parents' busy lives which are elsewhere. How are such children learning to regulate their emotions?" (p214)

Back to the point I raised earlier; if you want to imagine the human adult, you have to imagine someone who is aware of emotion, and not enslaved by it; how is such a person to be formed?

Which means that especially where we're thinking of environments of poverty and deprivation, the 'welfare to work' nostrum isn't enough. It has served importantly as a corrective to a passive attitude, but, insofar as it presumes that economic productivity is where we all ought to end up, irrespective of our nurturing and forming responsibilities in society, it isn't enough. We need stable environments of nurture, and we certainly need more co-operation than in some social settings if we're to avoid the oppression of young mothers described by Betty Friedan, noted by Sue Gerhardt. 'It takes a village to raise a child'.

But we need to think of that steady background of nurture not just in terms of the provision of bits and pieces of child care, but in terms of what human environments we create and encourage which offer security - steady, trustworthy backgrounds for human growth.

Now all of this is manifestly relevant to the work of COF because COF works with a clear sense of what adulthood involves, and it trains and campaigns with this in mind. My hope is that it is part of the process of change we need in moving towards a culture which is capable of nurture because it's capable of responsibility and of conversation. 'Conversation' may sound almost a weak word in this connection; and yet to be a confident conversational partner is surely part of what we mean by being adult, let alone being a citizen. In or out of educational institutions, what most deeply forms persons is conversation; taking each other seriously so that one of the most critical questions we can ask at the domestic level and at the public and political level is what nourishes and what frustrates conversation. I referred earlier to the subtitle of Mildred Masheder's book Educating Young citizens. Educate in a way which takes communication seriously, and you have educated citizens.

What emerges from all this, I think is that the education of adults and the education of citizens are inseparable aspirations and that we can't think about the education or formation of children without thinking about that. I'll take you again to Mildred Masheder's book and note what she has to say about some of this:

"In order to give our children the education they deserve, there must be much more commitment to a radical change in investment in education. Children need to be given full consideration as unique individuals and this means smaller classes and an approach to learning not tied to a rigid syllabus geared to a series of examinations.

If I had one wish which would make a vast improvement throughout the schooling system, it would be for much smaller classes. This would facilitate all the aims of this book.

Childhood, whether at home or at school, should be a happy time, with real interest in learning and joy in playing and we have the means to make this ideal a reality; if education is given its rightful place in terms of priority and support." (p113-114)

What Mildred Masheder says there reminds us that the clamour for results which sometimes comes up in our discussion of education can be a kind of displacement. We know we can't cope with educating persons, so at least let's have a full balance sheet of skills acquired and tests satisfied.

When we lived in Central Newport, my wife used to go to the local primary school which our daughter attended to help with reading practice. She would come back regularly and say that the problem was not teaching children how to read; the problem was communicating with children who were simply not used to talking with adults at all or being talked to by adults. Children had, in effect, been turned loose.

Literacy is not only about words; literacy is about the 'reading' of feelings and persons, about speaking and listening: emotional literacy, social literacy.

So, in conclusion, we're left with a number of questions about our practice; what are the messages we're sending out? But also, where do we find our opportunities to become adults? If the rather gloomy analysis I offered earlier about our culture is right - a culture of gossip and rhetoric and apathy and all those other things - we are badly in need not only of networks like the COF but all those organisations and groups that are part of it, in which we may practice being adults. And I would, in brackets, say that this is a very good question for religious institutions to address. My vision is that religious communities and institutions ought to be supremely capable of 'growing' human adults, because they convey and communicate a profound sense of the worth and value of human beings in the eyes of God; a regular awareness of the need for self-questioning in the presence of God; and thus that balance between hope and realism which, I believe, is deeply characteristic of maturity. Rumour has it that not every religious institution in human history has produced adults in quite this way and perhaps doesn't do so even now. That's why I say it's a good question for religious communities to ask themselves, knowing what they can be, and knowing sadly what they often fail to be.

Perhaps I could draw some of this together by saying that childhood is most positively valued and fostered when we resist infantilism; when adults stop being infants, children can be children. We want - don't we? - to see a society which is composed of adults, people who can choose and act and change. Who can hope; who can assume that they can make a difference; who can be sorry when they fail, who can empathise who can continue learning. It doesn't happen by accident.

If we go on producing grown-up infants, we can hardly wonder why different sorts of violence and dysfunction persist in our society. We have choices; we have choices that face us in this election period, but we have much longer-term choices as well. I hope and I pray that we have the courage and the positive, delighted appreciation of childhood that will give us the energy to pursue those choices.

© Rowan Williams 2005

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