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Sue Palmer: The kids are not OK, top educator warns

by Tomoko Otake

To a growing legion of educated, enlightened and empowered mothers in Japan and abroad, Sue Palmer’s advice on how to bring up children might sound — if not heard in context — too old-fashioned, too alarmist or even maybe too naive to prepare their loved ones for the rapidly changing, fiercely competitive society of the 21st century.

The prominent literacy specialist from Edinburgh sparked debate in Britain and elsewhere last year, when she suggested in her ominously titled book “Toxic Childhood” that the rapid social changes of our lives, including the shift in women’s roles and our increasingly technology-driven culture, are damaging children’s mental health, as well as causing a wide array of learning and behavioral problems.

Sure, we have all come to hear more about a growing list of problems afflicting children, including bullying, dyslexia, autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and Asperger’s syndrome. But can they really be resolved by the no-nonsense tips in Palmer’s book? Are they simply down to junk food, the lack of time we spend with kids, or our gaming and TV cultures?

While science has yet to fully discover the causes of these complex problems, with experts saying that some are at least in part genetic and neurobiological, Palmer, 58, suggests — through her exhaustive research of written materials and many interviews with experts — that the modern childhood has been rendered “toxic” by all of these little “risk factors” combined together: poor diet, lack of sleep and outdoor play, too much staring at screens, and excessive consumerism.

Where do we start to change things? And who is responsible? Palmer does not mince words when she says the “quality time” argument of recent decades — which assured career-oriented moms that everything would be fine if they spend 20 “quality” minutes with their kids every day — was a “desperate excuse” by women to feel better about abandoning their traditional responsibilities.

But she clearly separates herself from those die-hard types with a stone-age mind-set that women belong only in the kitchen. In an interview with The Japan Times during her weeklong visit to Japan last week, which coincided with the publication of the Japanese translation of her book, titled “Kodomo wa Naze Monsuta ni Narunoka (Why Children Become Monsters)” (published by Shogakukan), Palmer stressed she is just as guilt-ridden as any other career woman and the mother of a grownup daughter.

“All the way through writing the book, I was getting [these thoughts like], ‘Ah! I failed on that! Oh, I did that wrong!’ And I would ask my daughter, ‘Do you think I harmed you?’ ” she recalled with a laugh in the corner of the faculty room at Yokohama International School, where she was visiting as a keynote speaker for the school’s annual Bridging the Gap Conference for teachers, parents and the wider community. She also responded with an emphatic “We are not playing a blame game!” when a 10th-grade male student at YIS asked her who is to blame for the misery of today’s children. She added, later, that we all need to talk more, share problems and rebuild communities — instead of waiting for the state to act or resigning in fatalism.

“If you could detoxify children’s lives, you can detoxify society,” she said.

What follows is an abridged version of a two-hour interview.

First of all, why did you decide to write “Toxic Childhood”?

Because nobody else was doing it. Ten years ago, I was getting stories from teachers, wherever I went, who were saying that children were more distractible than they had been, particularly in the poorer parts of the country (Britain); that their language was deteriorating; that they could not listen well. Also, you were getting more low-level issues. They were saying that children were not getting along with each other as well, and problems with behavior and the incidences of bullying seemed to be getting worse.

And the first time you hear someone say that, you think, “Oh, it’s just the usual. . . . People have always said this.” But because I travel around the country, and I was hearing the same thing everywhere I went, I started thinking, “Maybe something is going on.”

I thought it probably had to do with a huge increase in (watching) TV that happened over the late ’80s and in the ’90s. In the 1990s, we got an explosion with satellite and cable and got into specialized children’s television programs, and we got a really big phenomenon of people putting television into children’s bedrooms, which I don’t think is as big in other parts of the world. Do they do it as much here?

No, I don’t think so.

You see, they are talking about 80 percent of children under 12 now (in Britain who have a TV in their bedrooms). Forty percent of children under 4! And that seemed to me to be a possibility for the reason behind it all.

Then I bumped into another researcher who was coming at it from a totally different point of view. She said children don’t move as much as they used to. From the earliest age, they are strapped into car seats and strapped into buggies. We just aren’t giving them the same freedom indoors, but also they are nowhere near as free as they were to go out. So I started checking up and asking people about this, and people were saying things like, “Yes! Children today — everybody’s got designer clothes for their children, and children don’t want to get dirty.”

They are all small things like this, but you start putting them all together. . . . So I brainstormed with some teachers. And we thought (about) all the things, and I put those onto a questionnaire, and over the course of six months I doled out the questionnaires wherever I went until I got 1,000 responses. (Of the 10 risk factors Palmer cited in her questionnaire, the factors that teachers believed affected student performance most were, in order of the number of votes: Too much TV, lack of sleep, lack of talk at home, poor parenting skills and family breakdown. Factors such as poor diet and lack of outdoor play/exercise trailed closely.)

You can see it’s a cocktail. . . . And meanwhile, I started hunting down experts in all the different areas. And each expert was really thinking it was just their thing. I started putting them together and thought, this is a syndrome. This is an unintended consequence, unintended side effects of rapid social and cultural change.

What did you find through the process of writing the book?

There are three things. One is the pace of change, particularly technological change and how it’s impossible for human beings to keep up with that. . . . Our brains are so phenomenal, but we have forgotten that children aren’t born with a fully formed brain. We cannot fast-forward development. They still need real food, real play, firsthand experience, real-life encounters, real-life love.

The second one is, we are not admitting the huge effect on relationships, on society, on the world as a whole, of the changing women’s status. Lots of people come at it from different angles, but it is at the bottom of so many things. Within families, the wives’ and husbands’ roles are so changed — and that has created adult dramas (disputes), which has kept us preoccupied. Again it takes the emphasis away from children.

And the third thing is this business of competitive consumerism. That has run really out of control in the last 15 years. . . . There is a beautiful quote by (British economist Richard) Layard from his book (“Happiness: Lessons From a New Science”): “Our fundamental problem today is a lack of common feeling between people — the notion that life is essentially a competitive struggle. With such a philosophy the losers become alienated and a threat to the rest of us, and even the winners can’t relax in peace.”

I think that really sums up a lot of what has happened in the U.S. and U.K. I would say it’s less so in Japan, which is a more socially oriented country.

I guess Japan was traditionally socially oriented, but not so much any more.

You must be beginning to see it, and I see it in Japanese teenagers when they are visiting London, because they are quite different from what they were like 10 years ago. When you see them at a school party today, they look much more like American children or British children, whereas before, you used to want to take your schoolchildren aside and say, “Look at how well-behaved the Japanese children are.”

Why do you think Japanese children changed?

It’s that global culture, particularly the marketing influences, and the “culture of cool,” which is constantly ratcheted up, isn’t it? That sort of marketing sells on boys because boys like to push boundaries. The marketing strategy is “edge.” But the point is, what was “edge” 10 years ago is tame (now). So the “edge” has to keep pushing and pushing. You got this unholy alliance between little boys who naturally want to push boundaries and international marketers. They are not getting the chance to be children; they are being pushed to grow up, or pushed to boundary-pushing.

You seem to have done a lot of research on Japan. What alarming trends did you discover about this country?

I kept trying to read about Japan because, while Americans are the ones that have this marketing-(to-the)- individual problem, where marketing is really driving some (problematic) behaviors, Japan has the technology, and you had TV for children much much younger than (children in the U.K.).

I would say the biggest problem in Japan is the screen-based culture and the reliance on technology as solving problems, because, while it can do amazing things, it isn’t going to be the answer to everything. I live in terror that there is someone in an office somewhere around here inventing a robot mother, with lovely eyes. (Laugh.)

There are some things that machinery can’t do. Colwyn Trevarthen (a child development specialist in New Zealand) talks about the “dance of communication.” It is a dance — it is a reciprocal thing between a child and a parent. I just don’t think you can duplicate that sort of interaction, which is very deep and very ancient.

In your book, you are particularly harsh on the tieup between toy makers and the movie industry.

Yes. You channel a child from a film to a movable item, which doesn’t do much, to a TV program to an Internet game. . . . This seems to be very time-consuming for children, quite money-consuming for their parents; but in terms of what play is for, it’s very passive. It’s very much consumer-driven, and it’s not doing what play should do, which is to do with firsthand experience of the world, interaction with other children, the use of language in context and the development of imagination and creativity.

But this “media-mix” strategy — which began to be popular with the commercial success of the Pocket Monsters computer game/animation series in the late 1990s — has been touted by the government as a symbol of Japan’s “soft power,” or as an example of Japan’s new cultural, and not just economic, strengths. Well, I mix with a lot of young people who are so into anime and so admiring of what Japan does in that. And it looks to me a great method of recreation. . . . So I would certainly not say that this is dreadful.

I’m talking about young children. What is appropriate to someone in double figures or even moving toward double figures is not appropriate to children younger than that. The first seven years are sacred, and we’ve got to become human before we become 21st-century humans. Then you don’t get a child whose default mode is “screen.” You get a child who’s got resilience, social competence — to be able to enjoy media mix, to enjoy all the fruits of technology, but also to be creative and to be able to be themselves in society, to cope with the problems that may come up as time goes on.

What places like McDonald’s are doing — with very, very tiny children with these Happy Meals — is you get the appropriate figure from the Happy Meal, you want to go to see the film, then you want to buy other things. So basically what children are getting is junk food, junk play, and taken away from real-life experience, because they are so busy staring at a screen.

Let me ask you about competitive pressures. I think a lot of parents share a view that if their kids don’t succeed, they’ll turn out to be complete losers.

It’s become so big in modern society that you are constantly terrified of looking like a loser. And people don’t value care (as seen in the low social status of child-care workers). So it looks as though, if you decide to care, you are a loser, because it’s not valued. That is nonsense, because there is nothing more important than loving people and caring for them. So where are we going wrong if we don’t value the most basic human necessities of love and care?

I found myself going into a meeting sometime recently and I said, “I’m going to throw some four-letter words at you: Love. Care. Time. Play.” They are totally basic human needs! And yet now, (people say) “Play? Ha! No time for that. We have a cram school to go to!” “Love? You don’t get paid much for that, do you?” “Time? I haven’t got any of that. No time to bring my child up!” We have abandoned really, really seriously important things, because we got distracted.

In the 1990s, we heard a lot about quality time, about how working parents should not feel guilty if they spend 15 to 20 minutes of time alone with their kids every day. But you seem to be very negative about quality time.

I think that was a desperate excuse to make us feel better, so we wouldn’t feel guilty! (Laughs.)

But in a society such as Japan, where men’s participation in child-rearing is limited and where social and extended-family networks have died out, isn’t pushing for more parental time with children going to mean confining mothers to their homes again?

No, it’s going to mean sharing it all. We can’t have it all, but we can share it all. You have to talk to your partner. But this is why I think there is an awfully long way to go in terms of equality. We perhaps thought the battle was won, because women can’t do everything. We have got to find a way forward, in which there is time for love and care.

I meet lots of wonderful men who are prepared, happy and excited about being able to share and bring up their children. I saw this father the other day with his child in the airport — a Japanese father — and he was chatting away with the little one! (Laughs.) That’s the ideal, but we have got to recognize that traditional women’s work — those facets of love, care, time and just somebody being there — are necessary. You can’t just expect women to expand their time to fit it all in. You have got to make sure we have communities and societies (to enable parents to fulfill their duties). So maybe the days of salarymen should be numbered. (Laughs.) But unless we talk about it, we are never going to get any further, and at the moment, we are just pretending it’s not there.

If you had a child who is 5 years old now, where would you raise him or her? In Japan or Britain?

Finland or the Netherlands.

So you agree with the UNICEF report on the well-being of children in the developed countries, which came out in February? (Children in the Netherlands were ranked the happiest, followed by those in Scandinavian countries. Britain came at the bottom, and the U.S. was the second from the bottom. Japan was not included in the list due to the shortage of data.)

Yes, totally. It was interesting when the UNICEF report came out, because I thought those were the two countries I would’ve chosen. The countries that came top were countries I had visited and countries where I’d thought, “This is a good place to grow up.” One of the reasons I thought that was the huge amount of effort put into (city) planning so that there are places to play.

I once interviewed a government minister in Finland, a young man, and he was very carefully and painstakingly explaining to us various things about child development with such huge understanding that I actually began to cry. I was sitting in this meeting and I felt tears forming in my eyes and I had to wipe them because you would never hear that in England. Never. The culture is just so different. So I would learn Finnish. Or Dutch. (Laughs.)