Inside and Outside of Children’s Homes

According to the Office for National Statistics in the 17 years since 1996, the number of adults between the ages of 20 and 34 in the UK still living with their parents has increased by 25% (670,000) There is a gender difference with 2.1 million (32%) being men, and 1.2 million (19%) being women. Shelter estimates that about half of the parents interviewed believed that their children would never be able to afford a home of their own.

Most of the analysis and reaction to the figures concerns factors outside the home and family, notably a shortage of affordable housing, and the cost of housing. What is not analysed is how life has changed within the family home over this period. This is where the book, The Great Indoors: At Home in the Modern British House by Ben Higham (Profile Books, 2013) is an inspiration. With its “biographies” of beds, cupboards, televisions, cookers, fridges, mantelpieces, central heating, dressers, doors, colours, duvets, chairs, the hallway, stairs landing, and telephones, it invites us to reflect on the profound changes that have gone on within the four walls of our dwellings. We still use the same words, house, flat, dwelling, family life, but these tend to disguise the ways in which some of their aspects have changed beyond recognition within a single lifetime.

If we take a longer span than 17 years it does not take much to work out how electric lighting, central heating, microwaves, televisions, and electronic communication have revolutionalised the minutiae of the way we live in our own homes. In place of a single room warmed by an open fire, every room in the house can be heated; in place of a single telephone, many members of the household will have their own mobile phones; in place of a single wireless or television there may well be televisions or monitors in several rooms. It is now possible for members of the same household to live parallel lives at home: communicating with their own friends and acquaintances rather than friends and family known in common, watching or listening to completely different streams of information, entertainment or music; inside the same building but not eating together, or in the same room for more than short periods of time.

Although we are thinking about relatively small areas of space (compared to say a school, shopping centre or city) this is a potentially huge subject. It invites questions about the differences between households at opposite ends of the class or wage structure; between houses of those from different cultural, social, ethnic and religious backgrounds; between different areas of the country, north and south, urban and rural … and so on.

One question it does raise, but that may have been overlooked, concerns how much the details of life in what used to be called ‘children’s homes’ or ‘foster families’ have changed over the years. How much attention has been paid to the design of the living space, and the changes in technology?

It so happens that I still live at Mill Grove, the place where I was born, and the home in which generations of my family have welcomed children, young people and families to live with us. Long ago it was called a children’s home. We, like other such residential communities, have charted some of the changes that have come about because of new understandings of attachment, of batch living, of the dynamics of groups, of institutionalisation, of the importance of personal space and belongings etc. But what changes have taken place simply because these places, like an ordinary family house or flat, have been transformed by factors that have nothing to do with emerging theories of care or development?

Despite sustained emphasis on shared meals, family events, and the design of the home with communal living space at its heart, there has been a centrifugal process at work over the years. I decline judgment of this, preferring rather to try to document a few of the changes. So rather than children and young people in the lounge watching say, the same television programme, they are as likely to be in their own rooms engaged in their own electronic communication. Rather than playing games together, such as football or cricket outside, or table tennis, snooker or table games inside, they will – except for special annual events – tend to be connecting with friends in virtual activities. Meals are often saved or micro-waved. The hours that individual residents keep (sleeping or eating) may vary considerably, and much more time is spent in each person’s bedroom or private space.

So, going back to the ONS figures for a moment, although in the last 17 years more children are staying in their parents’ homes longer, it is possible that the parents do not see a lot more of them than if they were living in another dwelling. Modern technology may well have made it possible to live individual, private lives in close proximity to others without the need for or likelihood of physical interaction. Does this have implications for the age at which children in care might remain in their children’s homes or foster families?

At some point there needs to be some evaluation of such trends set against stated beliefs and values. So if individual rights and personal choice are rated highly, these changes tend in the right direction. But if life together and relationships are valued, then there is an increasing problem. Therapeutic communities where there is an emphasis on the healing that comes through relationships may find that the changes work both ways (i.e. with the opportunities for more private space meaning that shared sessions can be more carefully framed and constructed). But that is some way down the road. First we need some comparative evidence from children’s homes, foster families and ‘ordinary family households’. Because the subject is so potentially vast I suggest that a start is made with dining rooms, kitchens, bathrooms, lounges, gardens, televisions and telephones/electronic communication.

This does not have to be in the form of a national research study so much as a comparison of shared memories, and possibly architect’s plans. There has been much communication in recent years about what people experienced as children at the hands of, or in the company of other children or adults, not least with respect to abusive relationships. A focus on the details of everyday life inside homes might possibly throw new light on this, but it could also remind us all that beyond human relationships, there are other factors that have been affecting and shaping our lives pretty comprehensively.

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