Book Review from the April 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard
A Good Childhood: Searching for values in a competitive age. Richard Lazard and Judy Dunn. Penguin, £9.99. 2009.
Some of us have a good childhood; others don’t. Of course it all depends on what you mean by a good childhood. Is it to own a lot of things – or to be happy? Is it more important to have a good relationship with others – or with yourself?
This book is based on the report of an 18-month survey sponsored by the Children’s Society, and is written by an economist and a psychologist. It deals with a wide range of issues connected with childhood: family, friends, lifestyle, values, schooling, mental health and inequalities. Its centre-left viewpoint is well illustrated by the remark “With immense courage the Labour government committed itself in 1999 to abolishing child poverty by 2020 . . . ”
The authors are critical of excessive individualism, by which they mean “the belief that the prime duty of the individual is to make the most of her life, rather than contribute to the good of others”. They reject some features of the face of childhood in present society, but they want to scrub that face clean rather than remodel it. Thus the media “should be embarrassed at the amount of physical violence which they put out and advertisers should be embarrassed at their encouragement of premature sexualization, heavy drinking and over-eating”. No question of the media and advertisers stopping their malign and profit-seeking influence on youngsters—just suggest that they should feel embarrassed at what they do.
The authors are far from holding the view that there is no such thing as society. Indeed they write of moral education that “it needs to offer a vision of a good person and a good society”. But most of the solutions they propose to childhood problems are at the level of individual behaviour rather than societal change: “If we want to improve our quality of life, we must above all produce better people.”
Archbishop Rowan Williams, patron of the Inquiry Panel, contributes an elegantly waffly 12-page afterword in which he claims that “the report ask far more from churches and religious communities – as it does from all kinds of bodies in our society”. The text does in places have a vicarish tone (“Children are a sacred bush”). But the nearest the report gets to churchy religion is to refer to spirituality as “an uplifting experience”.