Almost half of adults think that children are becoming feral, according to a survey published yesterday by leading children’s charity Barnardos. The charity blames perceptions of children – yet could there be some truth in the observation?
Let’s get one thing clear at the outset: Barnardos’ language here is deeply unhelpful; if any other group in society were being discussed, would such terms as ‘feral’ or ‘animals’ even be considered? The survey appears to be a model of how to use leading questions and ambiguous phrases in the pursuit of newsworthy findings.
Yet to simply stop the argument at this point is too quick. The survey paints a picture that chimes with wider concerns about generational decline. Setting aside perceptions and language, the survey raises a serious question: is children’s behaviour really getting worse?
In fact, there is robust evidence that children’s behaviour has gotten dramatically worse over the last 30 years or so. It comes from large, long-term child development studies led by the psychiatrist Dr Stephan Collishaw. One study found “a substantial increase in adolescent conduct problems over the 25-year study period that has affected males and females, all social classes and all family types”.
As the above charts show, Collishaw and colleagues also found evidence of increasing signs of anxiety and depression amongst adolescents. This should give pause for thought. What might be causing these two, apparently conflicting trends?
The short answer is that we don’t know for sure. However, the researchers argue in one paper that parents are not the cause of the problems. In another [pdf link], they speculate that one cause could be changes in “peer group interactions and non-family socialisation.”
Could children be losing opportunities to learn the kind of resilience skills that help them to deal with the everyday ups and downs of life? Are children being kept so socially isolated that when they do venture into the wider world, they struggle to cope?
This seems plausible, given what we know about the shrinking horizons of children’s daily lives. One likely outcome of this loss of experience is that children may find it harder to learn ‘everyday morality’: in other words, the norms and conventions that shape much of social activity.
As I argue in my book No Fear, mastering everyday morality is no mean feat. It is partly learnt through the guidance of parents and other significant adults, and by witnessing adults’ behaviour. But children also learn from their own experience: from being active participants in a broad range of social situations. If they are starved of these very experiences, is it any wonder that they find this harder to do?
I do not accept the idea that most of this country’s children are behaving terribly. I share with Barnardo’s the view that distorted perceptions of children are part of the problem. But unlike Barnardos, I think there is a grain of truth – perhaps more – in these perceptions. I believe that children today really are finding it harder than in the past to find their way in the wider world. As a result, a moral gap is in danger of opening up between children and adult society.
The causes are more deep-seated than a failure in child rearing. Their roots could well lie in the nature of the childhoods experienced by many children today, which is guaranteed to make it harder for them to grow up to be engaged, responsible citizens. If so, then the defining condition of modern childhood may be not ‘Lord of the Flies’ but cabin fever.