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Children: neglect, and saying no

08 March 2013

THE MP for Devizes, Claire Perry, was appointed in December as the Government's adviser on the sexualisation and commercialisation of childhood. A former banker and a mother of three children, she has long campaigned on these issues.

In a series of interviews last week, she argued that we are pressuring our children by organising too much for them to do. Our intrusive parenting is strangely compatible with real neglect. While we seem afraid to lay down the law with them, we are also failing to protect them from, for example, the flood of internet porn to which they are now routinely exposed.

One of Rowan Williams's best books, written before he became Archbishop of Canterbury, bears the title Lost Icons (T&T Clark, 2002). It is a series of essays on cultural loss, and begins with a lament for the loss of the idea of childhood. What had triggered his concern was a sequence of articles in an educational supplement on the necessary skills and training that children should acquire at various stages in their development. A letter following up this worthy material commented that none of the experts had seen fit to mention anything about play.

Writing before we had heard of "tiger mothers", or the teenage fascination with "sexting" photos of their own genitalia by mobile phone, Rowan Williams described the loss of childhood as the result of a profound "impatience" in society.

He was worried that we were beginning to treat children as though they were mini-consumers, expecting them to make choices that were beyond their capacity, and failing to recognise their need for a time in which their decisions were not binding either on themselves or on others. Children, he argued, needed space to indulge fantasy, without having to suffer the consequences of their fantasies' being realised. Only by such experiment would they learn to make adult choices.

Yet now it seems that that space is not available. The head of a Cambridge college remarked to me recently that she found that new students were far less emotionally mature than they were a generation ago: they were dependent on daily contact with parents, and insecure in themselves and in their relationships.

At the same time, they are plunged into the expectation of routine recreational sex, in which adult choices have to be made and lived with. If Ms Perry is to make a difference, she has not only to give confidence to parents to say no, but also to challenge the culture of choice which exposes the young to both intrusion and neglect.

The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

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