Politicians Are Playing A Dangerous Game With Childhood | Susan Hawkes & Michelle Janas

Activism on climate, sexual identity and covid are blurring important boundaries.

Speaking to COP26 last week, the Minister for education, Nadhim Zahawi, announced a new focus on environmentalism in the school curriculum. It took political activism further into the classroom than ever before, adding to what may become a slow death of our concept of childhood. His promise that “young people will be empowered to take action on the environment” was made as world leaders gathered to wrestle with the policy changes required to tackle climate change. It may have been well-intentioned, but this was no Greta Thunberg-style grass-roots call to action. It came top-down from the education minister of a Conservative government, making it stand out even more in an intensifying trend for politicians to hand the burden of responsibility for the environment onto young people. Who could have missed Greta Thunberg leading a legion of school children protesting in the streets demanding faster change and asking, “are we fighting to save ourselves?”

This trend to co-opt children into adult affairs is as worrying as it is rapid. It has serious consequences, not least in terms of its impact on children’s mental health. It is eroding one of the most civilised and hard-won social changes of the 19th and 20th centuries, when the concept of a separate and protected childhood banished the horrors of mill and mine work for the young. That concept means we instead commit to educating children and largely exclude them from the workplace. We understand that children need to develop into adulthood not only in the physical sense, but cognitively and emotionally too. We recognise children’s vulnerability, and if they are maltreated, we sanction the state to step in and protect them from further harm.

But harm can come in new ways. Safety from the mill and the mine is long-established. This trend to co-opt children into adult affairs as weaponry in political battles poses different dangers and could harm childhood itself. The environment is but one example. Consider our response to Covid. There were just 25 paediatric deaths in England from acute covid infection up until February 2021, more than 3 times lower than deaths from the common childhood respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) in any given year. Children then, are exquisitely protected from the physical ravages of covid. Yet, despite Chris Whitty’s warning in August 2020 that many more children were likely to be harmed from not attending school than by going, the National Education Union and the Labour party were but two organisations agitating for their closure. As a result, children in the UK had lost more than half of their classroom days by April 2021. Instead, children were locked in their homes with predictable consequences, a 19% increase in reports of child death and serious harm resulting from child abuse and neglect. The maelstrom of Covid appears to have amplified a break in the natural order and our understanding of childhood, with children being asked to sacrifice themselves at the bequest of adults, rather than the other way around.

The distinction between childhood and adulthood is also breaking down around sexuality. After an era where children were denied conversations about sex and sexuality, we find ourselves seemingly swung the other way where, often couched in the name of ‘inclusivity’, children are deliberately exposed to complex sexual concepts. In July this year Redbridge Council apologised after a library hired an actor dressed in a monkey outfit adorned with a bare bottom and large imitation penis, apparently to encourage children to read. More recently, Girl Guiding felt it appropriate to raise awareness for ACE week, recognising asexual people, and tweeted out their support for their own “asexual volunteers and members”. Although the Girl Guiding promotion was not aimed directly at children, one might argue that their focus on children had been lost.

This shift away from understanding childhood as a separate, protected entity has serious consequences and we are witnessing a worrying decline in children’s mental health. In 2020 an NHS survey found that 1 in 6 children had a probable mental disorder, an increase from 1 in 9 children in 2017. But spending on children’s mental health was on average 14 times lower compared to that for adults. Children will, of course, have anxieties and worries, but these should be confined to issues they can be empowered to resolve. Experiencing the stressors of exams and peer relationships are normal developmental tasks children learn to negotiate. Being recruited to solve the climate crisis or protect a community from covid places upon them an unmanageable and unrealistic burden.

Highlighting these concerns is not a rally-cry for a return to some faux ideology of childhood innocence. We recognise that children have agency, autonomy and importantly we listen to their wishes and feelings. But, we are observing a worrying disregard of the responsibility to protect children from concepts they are not yet equipped to hold. This failure to protect; exposing children to the latest political fashion in the guise of education, co-opting children into validating adult sexuality and frightening them about a virus over which they have no control are all examples of childhood commodification for adult agendas. Adults are responsible for children, not the other way round. We must remind ourselves of the sanctity of childhood. 

Susan Hawkes is a social worker registered with Social Work England. She qualified as a social worker in 1999 and worked primarily in child protection for 21 years. She is currently a Principle Lecturer at the University of Wolverhampton teaching and researching social work. She is also studying towards a PhD looking at how social workers make decisions about risk in cases featuring domestic violence

Dr Michelle Janas is a registered, practising social worker in England and an Affiliate of Oxford Brookes University. She originally graduated with a PhD in Medicine in 2000 and worked as an immunologist before changing careers. She is also a former foster carer.

Photo Credit.

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1 Response

  1. Well said! I hope the government is listening. Likewise Deep State, & all those other institutions which have been infiltrated by cultural Marxism & are now intent on dismantling society at the expense of our children.
    It puts me in mind of certain places where little boys are encouraged to go out & throw stones at soldiers. If the little boys come to harm – well, at least it’s good publicity for the cause! Different situation, same disregard for the welfare of children.

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