The UNICEF report on childhood in Britain, putting us bottom of 21 nations in terms of childrens well being (a composite of poverty, health, safety, education, family, risk behaviour and happiness), is grim reading. It's reported in various places, including the Independent, and BBC
Everyone will be piling in with answers. The Independent, true to its libertarian principles, cites Holland (top of the league), and focuses on the amount of freedom Dutch children are given. Experts in childcare point to the way the government has encouraged parents to contract out childcare to other paid adults so that we can all do more work, and the way this destroys family bonds. Ironically, I'm hoping to chat to the local school soon about the 'extended schools' agenda, which is basically the government trying to use schools for wraparound childcare to enable parents to see less of their children, and to do so more easily. That's a slightly warped view I know, but possibly a fair summary.
There are loads of other factors. Our culture is massively toxic to children. Everything has sold out to the 'market' - my kids watch 'Milkshake' on Channel 5, as it has their favourite programmes, and we mute the sound during the adverts - of which there are about 10 every 10 minutes. If the kids just watch 5 hours of morning TV a week that's 300 adverts. Can I say 'I love you just as you are' to my children as often as the TV says 'you need more stuff'? And can parents get out of the cycle of giving their children more stuff instead of love and quality time? ?Our houses don't help - one of the findings of the report is that families don't eat together very often. 24/7 work and an epidemic divorce rate must play a big part in this, but we also have houses designed around building firms profits rather than the needs of families, where there is no decent sized space for a family meal, or where there is a decent sized space its' designed to fit a wide screen TV. Someone mentioned the other day that Italy doesn't have many big out of town supermarkets, that you shop by going from 1 specialist store in town to another. If the Italians can manage their planning regime to preserve the character of their communities, then why can't we?
The whole education agenda seems to have backfired - by trying to OFSTED and test everything we've stressed our kids out with exams and coursework and a constant pressure to perform. What values will they pass on to their children? Blairs 'education education education' mantra may be the gospel according to new Labour, but it doesn't seem to have the power to transform lives that the original Gospel has. One thing which keeps me out of depression today is what happened on Monday night, where we heard about the work Urban Warriors are doing with Yeovil young people, seeing kids becoming Christians, lives changed, all sorts of local state and secular agencies asking this Christian youth ministry for help on how to engage with young people. As Bill Hybels put it, the local church is the hope of the world, because the only thing which can make us fully whole is Jesus, and the message of Jesus has been given to the church. (I just wish we'd act more like the hope of the world - the same day as the UNICEF report, the only headline about the church is of an imminent split in worldwide Anglicanism! Aaaaaaargh! Will you people just sort yourselves out!!!!!!!)
Final bit, before I start ranting. Worth reading alongside the UNICEF findings is some research here on the Civitas website, which has been around for a while, on the effects on children of absent fathers. All the indicators on the UNICEF list are affected by having an absent father, and it's sobering to see two of the countries with the highest divorce rate - the USA and the UK - in the bottom 2 places on the league table, and by some distance. Perhaps in the church we've not spoken up for marriage and conventional families because we don't want lone parents to feel stigmatised. I agree with the objective, but the tactics are backfiring badly.
Finally, (really finally), if anyone knows some good marriage preparation/parenting course material, please send in a comment. One of the best practical responses we can make as a local church is to provide decent marriage prep and parenting support.