It is well known that all the nations in the world apart from the USA and Somalia are signed up to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989. But from the very start there have been those of us who have wondered what it actually means in practice. Countries agree that children have a number of rights, but then events seem to overtake them, and ideologies and institutions deny them. So Syria is a signatory, but what possible relevance has this got had for children over the past two years? There is a universal right to primary education, but what does it mean for girls who live in countries (signed up to the convention) where the influencers of power do not believe in female education?Perhaps the best way of seeing the convention is as a set of aspirations or standards to which, in peaceful periods, people of good will can appeal. For the fact is that in sundry times and places the Convention seems to be talking of a parallel universe mostly unconnected to the one in which real children are actually living. In theory we are in favour of providing a child-friendly environment for our offspring, but in practice this belief is overridden time and again by factors that we dare not or cannot confront.
With this in mind let’s explore an insight into the lives and development of children that has become accepted in one shape or form pretty much across the board: attachment theory.
Put in its simplest form the theory (which has many varieties and caveats) holds that an infant needs to develop a stable and continuous trusting relationship with at least one primary caregiver for social and emotional development to occur normally. It is also accepted that there are some critical periods in a child’s life, particularly in the early years for the development of secure attachments. Not everyone agrees with John Bowlby in identifying the period between 6 months and 2 years as critical, but it is acknowledged that the critical period for the development of satisfactory attachments is in early childhood.
Communities or societies that accept this will presumably seek to support policies that facilitate this, and combat policies that undermine it. This is how a recent handbook put it: “Supporting early child-parent relationships is an increasingly prominent goal of mental health practitioners, community based service providers and policy makers … Attachment theory and research have generated important findings concerning early child development and spurred the creation of programs (sic) to support early child-parent relationships”. [Berlin L, Zeanah, CH, Lieberman AF, “Prevention and Intervention Programs for Supporting Early Attachment Security”; in Cassidy J, Shaver P R. Handbook of Attachment: Theory, Research and Clinical Applications. New York and London: Guilford Press (2008) pp. 745–61.]
But this is where the problem is seen at its starkest. It may well be that professionals in the field of child welfare seek to support secure attachments, but what about society at large? Let us take three policies that most agree combine to support consistent child-parent relationships, and the forces that conspire against them.
The first is a secure bond between the parents of the child, which is supported by the extended family and community. The traditional term for this is marriage. In the UK and Europe this has been in decline for decades, and cohabitation has been on the increase. Talk of “stable relationships” is all very well but how on earth does anyone know if a relationship between parents is stable without some form of (publically witnessed and endorsed) marriage contract?
So why not advocate and support marriage? Governments are reluctant to do so, although (despite the fact that it is not a panacea) it has been shown to be in the best interests of children. In such a discourse it is not at all obvious where the voice of children, unborn and very young are to be heard. What seems to trump or override the interests of children are the rights of individual adults: in a democratic, free society adults should not be hampered in such a personal choice of “lifestyle”. This is possibly best thought of as the liberal democratic philosophy, which sees the dismantling of anachronistic institutions and traditions as necessary in pursuit of progress of autonomous individuals and mature societies.
The second concerns the freedom of movement of workers. It is important for a growing child that he or she should live as far as possible in a settled household with primary caregivers. This is part of the rationale of marriage. But EU policy trumps this with one of the pillars of the whole project: the freedom of movement for workers. This is one of the four economic freedoms: free movement of goods, services, labour and capital. And in the free market discourse it makes good sense. But where, once again we ask, is the voice of children heard. We can think of this perhaps best as the consumer, market-driven, neo-conservative philosophy which sees ultimate progress or good coming out of a capitalist economic model based on individuals (“labour”) and the best modes of production.
Those of us who have inside knowledge of the lives of ordinary families in say Nepal or the Philippines, know that the migration of workers (“the free movement of labour”) is one of the scourges of family life. Massive numbers of workers, mostly men, are employed in the Middle East, and from there they seek to support their families economically. But what of attachment theory? What of their relationships with their spouses and their growing children? Lone parent families struggle both to make ends meet and to provide consistent parenting. As a result children often do not form satisfactory attachments. But no one seems to be willing to speak out in their interests and favour. It is as though they can be sacrificed on the altar of the god of market capitalism, and few dare challenge it for fear of being accused of blasphemy against the spirit (religion?) of our age.
It is accepted that growing up with a single parent (however loving and well-intentioned) tends to put children at a disadvantage for three main reasons: A disrupted family usually has fewer financial resources to devote to children’s upbringing and education; less time and energy to nurture and supervise children; and reduced access to community resources that can supplement and support their parents’ efforts. Father Absence and the Welfare of Children by Sara McLanahan.
A report of Civitas concludes that “It has long been recognised that children growing up in lone-mother households are more likely to have emotional, academic, and financial problems and are more likely to engage in behaviour associated with social exclusion, such as offending, teenage pregnancy, alcohol and drug abuse or worklessness.” But it is still too risky for governments in our age to advocate marriage covenants.
The third issue concerns pre-school provision and education. We could call this utilitarianism: in the form of the institutionalisation of childhood by means of education in the service of the state. In April 2014 Ofsted launched a major report on early years learning and pre-school provision. One of its arguments is that children aged two should be offered structured education in school. In a speech launching the report Sir Michael Wilshaw said: “What children facing serious disadvantage need is high-quality, early education from the age of two delivered by skilled practitioners with degrees in a setting that parents can recognise and access easily. These already exist. They are called schools.”
These three discourses (liberal, capitalist and utilitarian) can be described differently, and it is not the purpose of this article to defend the working definitions used. Others can do this should they wish to do so. But it is obvious from this briefest of examinations that they are relatives or bedfellows that combine whether consciously or not to shape the lives and futures of children worldwide. There are of course many other factors, global and local, cultural and religious, economic and geographic. But what they have in common is either no understanding of attachment theory, or no inclination to do anything to support secure attachments in early childhood.
If we were to take the well-being and welfare (the rights of) children seriously then we would at the very least be determined to ask of every policy or social trend: does this contribute to the nurture and support of secure attachments, or does it tend to undermine them?
It is not apparent from a reading of history that governments have it in their power long term to allow the well-being of children to shape the major discourses and economic trends of their times. Declarations of the rights of children have therefore a limited efficacy (though they may function as reminders of a better world). So where should we put our energy? Where should we look for evidence that the combined effects of liberal, capitalist and utilitarian discourses are mitigated?
Perhaps there are places and societies that readers can point to. I would be interested to learn of them. Meanwhile we continue to try in the place called Mill Grove to live by other philosophies, where love is valued above educational and economic attainment; where relationships are esteemed whether or not they can be measured; and where covenants especially marriage are seen as foundational in all human development personal and social. It is not an unmitigated success, but like other experiments we are trying to keep a record for those ready and willing to re-consider existing nostra in the light of the best interests of their children and children’s children.
We need reminders of the truth that what seems to be the inescapable “realities” of particular stages in human history (“we have no choice”; “there is no alternative” are the typical refrains) are nothing of the sort. As humans we have freedom, and we owe it to our children that they will have examples however small and marginal of how to live another way.
The history of residential schooling and residential child care in the UK (as well as in many other places around the world) is full of such example: pioneers who in what they saw as the best interests of children were prepared to step out of line. (I have described a few of these in the article in the Webmag, On the Shoulders of Giants, July 2007.) Of course I do not agree with them all these pioneers, and they do not agree with each other. But because they and we are attached to children we cannot be silent when their well-being is put at risk by factors, forces, ideologies, trends and institutions that do not even seem to notice the damage caused to potential attachments between children and their parents in their pursuit of other, supposedly higher goals.