Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Inconvenient children

The start of the summer holidays has triggered the predictable rash of ‘how to survive your children for six whole weeks’ articles. It’s time for parents to display their special membership of the grown-ups club by rolling their eyes at each other while saying, within earshot of their children: “Only five (four, three) weeks to go!” The message is pretty clear: you’re a nuisance and I don’t enjoy spending time with you. Would any marriage or friendship survive that? Unfortunately, though, children’s dependence means they have no choice.

An interesting coincidence that last Saturday’s Guardian carried an interview with ‘Supernanny’ Jo Frost – the Barbara Woodhouse of the nursery. Decca Aitkenhead’s blistering account makes it clear she was
not impressed:

Frost appears to have given so little thought to the show's sensibility that it's hard to know how much of it she even really shares. She may be the face of the brand, but she has no editorial control. It was Ricochet who chose to cast an unqualified nanny in a semi-pantomime role, and styled her to look like a pseudo-dominatrix. The series producer told me this was "serious, educational documentary-making". But in a crowded TV ratings battle, producers aren't in the business of educating. It's their job to work out what will make us watch.

Why do we watch? Supernanny tells viewers that the problem with "out of control" children is not their unhappiness, but the fuss and bother they cause to grown-ups. And five million of us tune in - dwarfing ratings for the more thoughtful Little Angels - which says a great deal about our prevailing attitude to children.

Frost is surprised by how popular the show is among children themselves, but I'm not, for Supernanny is not unlike a children's story: naughty kids do wicked things, get their comeuppance, and live happily ever after. It's the appeal to adults that is more revealingly arresting. What Supernanny ultimately offers, and what people evidently want, is a regime for making children less inconvenient. As the blurb on Frost's latest book puts it so succinctly, "Want your life back? You need Supernanny!"

Mind you, the Guardian has nothing to boast about. Every week in the same supplement, readers are treated to the tribulations of ‘Living with Teenagers’ (whose demeanour, as we all know, is universally obnoxious to the point where we can all make sweeping generalisations).

Frankly, if any parent's attitude lends itself to such bile-filled description of their teenaged offspring, all the while feigning martyrdom or expressing wistful longing for the lost days of babyhood - not to mention revealing intimate details about their daughter’s difficulties in using tampons, or their son’s anxieties about sex - then it’s hardly surprising that relationships are strained. Whether or not ‘names have been changed’ is irrelevant: the betrayal is the same.

A few years back, the Mental Health Foundation published a report on children’s mental health, ‘The Big Picture’. Sadly it isn’t available online, but we’ll leave you with a terrific quote from it:

We claim to be a child-centred society, but in reality there is little evidence that we are. In many ways, we are a ruthlessly adult-centred society where children are defined almost exclusively in terms of their impact on adult lives…. Our adult-centred society has tried to contain and limit the impact of children on adult life by either excluding them from much of it, blaming them for disturbing it or by admitting them only as designer accessories or treating them like pampered pets.


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