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Putting the Biological Needs of Children First

My grandmother, born in the nineteenth century used to say that, “it is a nation’s women who make it great”.  In nurturing the young and sustaining the family, it was women who built the moral fibre of the future.  But this was also carried out in the context of a stable family unit where the family could be financially supported by the father.  This is no longer the case, and while women’s rights have brought many improvements to the lives of men and women, they have also created a world in which the biological, developmental and social needs of children have taken second place to the financial needs of adults and a new kind of selfishness born of “choice”.

A series of reports over the last 5 years have produced a disturbing picture of inequality, under-achievement, distress and disaffection amongst a significant percentage of children and teenagers in the United Kingdom.  When compared to other developed countries, children in the United Kingdom do not fare as well on important measures of well-being[i][ii].  Many of these children grow up to become adults who are more stressed, more unhappy and are less content than many apparently less privileged societies. In the drive to achieve higher material standards of living, the fundamental biological, developmental and social needs of children have been increasingly ignored.

Whereas forty years ago, it was the family that was primarily responsible for the process of educating children in the general sense, and school provided specific instruction in literacy, numeracy and academic subjects, increasingly we are witnessing a growing dependence on school and state to provide and nurture all aspects of children’s growth and education. For many families shared time and activities are increasingly rare, with gadgets and devices substituting the role of parents and care providers.  Instead, driven by economics, emphasis is on getting mothers and fathers back to work and increased provision of external child care. Interestingly, we are the only species which seeks to separate its young from its mother for social reasons.

In the years between the dawn of the new millennium and 2011 there have been daily reports in the media of: poor literacy standards in schools; children starting school unable to manage simple motor tasks such as the ability to use a knife and fork; poor listening skills;  poor attention; increase in childhood obesity; children of working mothers having unhealthier lifestyles; increase in autistic type behaviours; children entering school with immature speech and language and a new generation of parents unaware of the importance of physical development.  There have been several reports that up to 40% of parents admit that they never read to their child and a new generation of parents across the social spectrum, who for a variety of reasons, are unaware of the importance of physical development and the role of movement, communication and interactive play in the early years for building the foundations for later learning.

“Many would scoff at the suggestion modern society is bad for children. Of course it isn’t they say. Look at infant mortality figures. Look at general health and longevity. Look at our welfare system – a net to protect children from absolute poverty. Or the fact all children have the right to education. Modern society allows children not only to survive but to expect a reasonably fulfilled adult life. In comparison to the past, or less affluent societies, our children are remarkably privileged. Yet evidence is mounting that these privileges have not brought contentment. Ever younger children are exhibiting symptoms of mental illness; self-harming, eating disorders, and disturbed aggressive behaviour[iii]“. Riots which took place in several cities in the UK in the summer of 2011 revealed a wanton disregard for the needs, rights and property of others and respect for the law.

Children were designed to be nurtured by involved parents in the context of a close knit family and community guided by a shared moral code which set out clear divisions between right and wrong and a sense of pride in aiming to be “the best that you can”. Modern living has done much to destroy this primary nurturing environment, sense of shared national values and hope for the future.

These factors combined with reduced opportunity and space to play, living in confined spaces far from nature, being surrounded by constant movement and distractions, parents trying to juggle the demands of busy lives or the lassitude born of lack of job prospects and opportunity, parents and teachers afraid to discipline children in their care, poor nutrition resulting from a glut of fast food and the demise of simple pleasures such as  traditional rhymes, stories, games and daily family mealtimes, means that increasingly parents do not know what to do or why such traditional activities were important for children’s development.

Wealthy parents wanting to do the best for their children are often misled into believing that more cognitive stimulation in the form of the teaching of formal skills from an early age, extra curricula activities or electronic games provide the answer. Under-privileged families struggle to find the energy, resources and environment to fulfil the basic needs of space and opportunity for physical play, and some are ignorant of a child’s fundamental needs for physical experience and social interaction.  One example of this was when I was talking to a baby in its pram recently, the mother looked at me with genuine pity and said, “why are you to talking to it? It’s only a baby, it doesn’t understand what you are saying”.

The technological revolution which has taken place in the last 20 years has accelerated the pace of change, replacing physical contact with virtual communication, increasing the number of distractions which compete for our attention while reducing the assurance provided by direct sensory experience.  Just as sensory deprivation when used for interrogation purposes broke down cortical control and sensory impairment results in changes in behaviour, if we continue as a society to substitute virtual communication and entertainment for real relationships and experience we run the risk of rearing a generation of individuals unable to recognise and adjust to the needs of others.

Parents of the future, parents today and anyone involved in early years education and child welfare need to be aware of the broader context of children’s development and to know why physical development, entrained through play in the context of engagement with close family members in the early years is an essential precursor to later educational success and emotional well-being[iv].

[i] Unicef 2010. The children left behind. Innocenti Report Card 9

[ii] Allen G, 2011.Early Intervention: The Next Steps

An Independent Report to Her Majesty’s Government

[iii] Coward R, 2009,  Is modern society bad for children? – Debate at Roehampton University

[iv] Goddard Blythe SA, 2011.  The genius of natural childhood. Hawthorn Press. Stroud.

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