Adults think children are becoming feral. Could they be right?

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”.

Chart showing increases in emotional and conduct problems in 16 year olds 1975-99

Emotional and conduct problems: trends for 15-16 year olds

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.

9 responses to “Adults think children are becoming feral. Could they be right?

  1. Very, very interesting and sad. I could’nt agree more. What a great blog. I’m can’t believe it’s taken me as long as it has to start reading it!

  2. An idea I think I read somewhere and now, having spent some time in environmental education it is ringing true, is that children push the boundaries of socially acceptable behaviour because we do not allow them to take risks. By enforcing their safety, they have to find the excitement of life and living in other ways.

  3. I was thinking about your post whilst in the (long and slow moving) queue for the post office yesterday, when the woman in front of me in the queue had a total melt down and went ballistic towards the counter staff because they wouldn’t give her a package without proof of ID.

    The entire queue ground to a halt, and by the time she had finished, the queue was out the street and round the block with fuming ‘customers’. I felt sorry for the counter staff and everybody concerned, but unfortunately, not surprised.

    I talked about it with a friend who works in customer service for a public sector organisation, who had spent the whole of the previous day answering telephone complaints, many of which could at best be described as highly abusive, for a mistake made by an external subcontractor over which my friend had no influence or control. Her view is that this kind of outburst by adults is becoming increasingly common and that ‘more and more people are on a shorter and shorter wick’ and are becoming ‘much quicker to kick off’ than she remembers. Whilst purely anecdotal, this reflects my own recent experiences in providing public services.

    At the same time many of the people I know feel increasingly disempowered, frustrated and exploited by the big organisations that provide many of our essential services – from the energy companies, the train companies, the banks, and, in some cases, the public sector.

    Like you, I wouldn’t use the word ‘feral’, but it’s not just children who are suffering from increased anxiety and depression at the moment. Many adults are under ever increasing pressure too. Who do children learn their behaviour from? If behaviour is getting worse, maybe it’s not just the children?

  4. This is a really interesting post. Like you say, too easy just to bring the debate to a halt because of concerns about the way the Barnardo’s survey was done. But it is regrettable that, in order to get publicity and also perhaps to raise funds, Barnardo’s was prepared to ask such leading questions … did we end up with a description of what adults think, or a re-inscription of a particularly vicious take on children? At an anecdotal/personal experience level, I also worry about the limited, and shrinking range of children’s freedom and how this will affect children’s development. It’s why your blog and work is so important to me.

  5. Nancy, Fiona, Nicola, Julian: thanks for your comments. Nicola: interesting to hear your observations, and the suggestion that these changes may be playing out in adulthood. Intriguingly, Collishaw’s most recent research (see his website link above) suggests that adolescent mental health problems may be plateauing. A turning point, maybe?

  6. Pingback: Out of sight, out of mind? | Rethinking Childhood

  7. That last sentence is so spot on. We have been having horrible rainy weather where I live and I do notice a decline in my children’s behaviour when they are stuck indoors for a whole day – not that they will voluntarily play outside, mind you, as it seems that the lure or technology is often too strong for them. Once we do kick them out, they seem to be able to find things to do. It is a battle though. We recently took them camping for a week and the change in them was amazing, ie, after a few days, they were doing things like reading books, playing cards, building dams or going off in search of kangaroos. The super cool 13yo was even doing things like playing on the swings and slides at the playground. They were also squabbling a lot less. Was a good lesson for us too.

  8. Empressnasigoreng – thanks for this. That’s a nice anecdote about how to break the patterns of everyday life, and how that helps.

  9. Pingback: Is a taste of freedom the key to a good childhood? | Rethinking Childhood

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