I was sitting in the lunch room at work one day having a chat about life, politics and gossip. As it often does, the conversation travelled to family and kids when a colleague of my complained that her four year old daughter has started developing body image issues. When visiting the local pool the girl would sit in a corner covered with a towel and shout 'Don't look at me.' 'It's all that stuff they pick up at school.' Said the mother 'And TV. They get it all from TV.' And then as happens to me all too often, I spoke up without giving the situation much thought. 'So if you think the TV is to blame' I said 'why don't you just turn it off?' There was a stunned silence in the room. The woman stared at me for a moment as if I was an alien from Mars and then said incredulously 'Turn it off? What are you saying? You mean turn the TV completely off? Are you serious?'
How much are we prepared to do for our children? Anything it takes, the saying goes. Usually that implies jumping into a raging torrent to save them or giving them the last seat in a life-raft. Thankfully those situations don't come around very often. What does happen, and very frequently, is the multitude of benign situations when the benefit of the child is weighted up against the parent's convenience. We all know that processed food is bad for our children and consequently the sales of 'natural'-labelled food products are booming. That's wonderful. We also recognise that the Television content is bad for them, that violent video game images harm their development, that internet on their computers and now also on their mobile phones can place them in danger. Yet despite this, you would struggle to find a child without almost unlimited access to all of the above. Why the inconsistency? Does anyone think that the emotional diet of sex and violence harms the developing mind any less then junk food harms the body? Or is it just easier to reach for the 'low GI' brand in the supermarket isle then to tackle the fundamentals of lifestyle and behaviour that affect our leisure time choices? Most children of the families I know attend their local Government school. Does this represent the best fit for those children's emotional and developmental needs or is it simply a choice of parental convenience? 'Bullying is just a part of growing up' and 'home environment is what really counts' are some of the more popular excuses given to justify keeping a child in an unhealthy and harmful school environment. But few parents realise just how much harm an unhealthy social environment could do and how different things are from the days when we went to school ourselves. A Government funded 'Headspace' study has found that up to a quarter of young people aged 18 to 25 have mental illness. That's higher then the national average. And in an age group brought up in the age of most regulated food industry, strictest safety standards and most advanced medical care at any time in history. The study also found high rates of alcoholism, drug abuse and violent behaviour. Indeed we have a lot to be concerned about. So how is it that despite unprecedented safety, affluence and education opportunities our young people appear to increasingly make choices that lock them out of society?
Next time you go shopping spend ad extra moment examining the items in the 'Toys' department and you will notice a curious transformation. It all begins harmlessly enough with the products targeted to the age group up to about four years old. There the colours are soft, the words are gentle, the neatly sanitised babies are smiling at you from every box and the key selling point can be summed up in one word - 'educational'. But as you travel up the age bracket, a strange transition begins to take place. For the boys 'educational' gradually gives way to a profile of a hooded, sideways-cap wearing, overtly threatening and antisocial juvenile delinquent whose violence is never explicit but always implied, simmering just under the surface. For the girls 'educational' is replaced by hypesexualised, high heel and fish-net stocking wearing, anorexic and collagen enhanced caricature of female availability. This transition from a child to a stereotype of gender-related antisocial behaviour occurs suddenly and at an age group when most children are still at work mastering the alphabet. I believe that in developmental terms it represents the precise psychological moment at which the parent chooses to withdraw their input, remove their guidance in regard to the choice of toys, activities and entertainment. A point at which fighting the continuous 'I want' becomes simply too hard. A kind of invisible 'opting out'. I am not for a moment suggesting that children's' toys are to blame for the epidemic of mental illness and antisocial behaviour. That would be ludicrous. But for me, the transformation of toys is a kind of symbol. A marker of parental indifference. A proof that those same parents who would never let their children make unguided choices of diet, would and do leave them on their own when it comes to choices of entertainment and play. To those parents I say - stop and reconsider. If you leave them on their own they will reach for the most harmful - it's the nature of children. So don't let go so soon. If you love them - guide them. And whatever small sacrifice it will take on your part, surely it will be worth the effort.