This year primary school children in Britain had a new addition to
their curriculum. From time to time they will have a 30-minute assembly
on some basic social skill (what was once called virtue), followed by
classroom lessons on related topics and discussions in other curriculum
areas.

They will be taught how to make friends, resolve squabbles and “manage
their anger”, reports the London Telegraph. In one session children are
encouraged to talk about their emotions and to play a quiz called
“Guess what I am feeling?” They design an “emotional barometer” to rate
the strength of their feelings. In another session, children build a
“good friend wall” with bricks on which they write qualities of
friendship. They are also encouraged to pass round a cuddly toy to
stroke to help them understand the nice feeling they have when
receiving a compliment.

Schools, already struggling to teach the three R’s, now have to take on
the big E because, says the Department of Education, they can no longer
assume that parents are doing the job. “Research is bringing home the wide extent of various types of neglect
and abuse,” the department has told head teachers. “This is being
exacerbated by the breakdown of extended family and communities, which
reduces support for the nuclear family, and the higher rates of divorce
and subsequent one-parent families.”1

Not all teachers are happy about this new responsibility. Many would
probably say it is not new at all, in that teachers (good ones, at
least) have always played a role in what is essentially moral
education, and that they should be left to use their judgement as to
which children need more or less of it.

But news from the chalkface in Britain is not good. The chief inspector
of schools said recently that nine per cent of secondaries suffered
from “persistent and unsatisfactory” behaviour – up from six per cent
five years ago. A recent survey by the Teacher Support Network, a
charity that runs a helpline for school staff, found that 98 per cent
of respondents had been verbally abused and 45 per cent threatened with
violence. One in five had been assaulted and 38 per cent said they had
had personal property damaged or defaced. And that’s only the teachers.2

The pattern of increasing unruliness and defiance in classrooms and
bullying in playgrounds is repeated in virtually every developed
country – particularly, it seems, those of Anglo-Saxon origin. And it
is happening at younger ages. Thirty years ago the rebelliousness of
young teenagers constituted the only serious challenge to classroom
discipline. Today, the behaviour of pre-schoolers is causing concern.

In 2003 Time magazine reported on a survey of 39 child-care centers,
elementary schools and pediatricians in the Fort Worth, Texas, area.
The survey found that 93 per cent of the schools said kindergartners
had more emotional and behavioural problems compared with five years
earlier, and over half the day-care centers said “incidents of rage and
anger” had also increased. The example was given of a three-year-old
“who will take a fork and stab another child in the forehead”.3

A director of the National School Safety Centre, which tracks school
violence nationwide, observed, in the same article, that violence
across the country “is getting younger and younger”. A growing number
of school districts were creating special elementary schools for
disruptive youngsters. A director of psychological services involved
with 80,000 students told the researchers that these problems involved
middle-class areas as well as poorer ones. “We’re talking about serious
talking back to teachers, profanity, even biting, kicking and hitting
adults, and we’re seeing it in five-year-olds”.

One answer to these problems has been to medicate them. Spending on
drugs to treat children and adolescents for behaviour-related disorders
rose 77 per cent from 2000 to the end of 2003 in the United States.
Sales of such drugs are growing faster than any type of medicine taken
by children.

Particularly telling is the US trend for attention deficit disorder
drugs for children under five, use of which rose 49 per cent from 2000
to 2003, to half of all children taking any behaviour-related
medication.4 Almost one in four boys, it is estimated, is taking such
drugs.5

Given the eagerness of some professionals to trace all behaviour to
brain “wiring”, and of drug companies to come up with remedies, it is
not at all clear how much of the juvenile mental health crisis is real,
and how much of it is an excuse for something lacking in the adult
population. In her recent book, Home Alone America, Hoover Institute
research fellow Mary Eberstadt argues that mental health statistics are
being driven up by two factors. In the first place there is the
increasing separation of children from their families due to divorce
and single parenthood (the absent father problem), working mothers (the
absent mother problem), and smaller and geographically scattered
families (the absent sibling and absent grandparent problems).

This separation results in “a dynamic in which adults who are not often
around children find their behaviour problematic and, simultaneously,
children who are not often around parents and other family members feel
and behave worse and worse”.6  Teenage shooting rampages, like
the recent tragedy enacted at Red Lake reservation, are at the extreme
of a continuum of children thus alienated from their parents, Eberstadt
maintains, not in a class of their own.

As well as producing this basic estrangement between children and their
parents, which is a source of real insecurity and misery for children,
absent parents put their unsupervised children at risk of other
negative health trends, such as obesity and sexually transmitted
diseases, she says. All this makes intuitive sense and is supported by
evidence.

However, in pegging her thesis of juvenile malaise to the working
mother, Eberstadt – mother of four and a home-based worker – goes
further than many social analysts and policy makers who acknowledge
that changes in family life are not all benign in their effects.

The British education authorities cited earlier, for example, are
prepared to say that the breakdown of the extended family, and even
divorce and one-parent families, exacerbate parental neglect and
badly-behaved children. But, representing a government heavily
committed to female employment and childcare, they are unlikely to
sheet the problem home to maternal absence. On the contrary, plans were
floated last year for keeping schools open from dawn to dusk to provide
care for 5- to 11-year-olds, extending this to 14-year-olds in time.

As for tackling divorce and single parenthood, the Blair government
shows no sign of following the Bush administration’s pro-marriage
initiatives. Britain’s answer to family dysfunction is to load more
tasks and authority onto schools and other public agencies. Outposts of
British socialism, like New Zealand, are taking the same path.7

Yet it is parents’ attention that children themselves want. A small
Australian study is indicative. Young people aged 12-13 and 16-17 and
of various socio-economic backgrounds were asked last year whether they
would like more time with their parents, or more money if their parents
worked longer. Almost half wanted more time with their parents –
usually with the less available parent – and most of the others were
torn between more parental time and more money. Only one-fifth
preferred more money.8

In a fascinating chapter of her book, Eberstadt shows how juvenile
resentment towards bad parents is a central theme of teen music. “If
yesterday’s rock was the music of abandon,” she writes, “today it’s
that of abandonment. The odd truth about contemporary teenage music –
the characteristic that most separates it from what has gone before –
is its compulsive insistence on the damage wrought by broken homes,
family dysfunction, checked-out parents, and (especially) absent
fathers.”9

But is it enough for mum to be at home when the kids arrive from
school, and for dad to come home every evening rather than once a
fortnight to take them out for the day? Even that would be a lot, says
Eberstadt, arguing for an adult “Warm Body Standard” as the basic
guarantee of child well-being.

Yet many children with a warm adult body at home are missing out on
what they have a right to receive from the heart and mind of the adult,
especially a parent. Much research indicates that even conscientious
parents lack confidence in their ability to raise children – more than
50 per cent in one Australian study, in which parents admitted they
struggled to get close to their kids.10

Oddly enough, many of the same generation of parents have abandoned
their role as moral educators in favour of being their children’s
“housemates and friends”, says American social commentator Kay
Hymowitz. This leaves children with today’s default value of
“non-judgementalism”, which in practice is merely the absence of
values. Given this emptiness of soul, it is no wonder that the law of
jungle begins to assert itself. 11

What classroom lessons on how to be “nice”, as the Telegraph put it,
can achieve against the combined odds of marital breakdown, working
mothers and confusion about the parental role, remains to be seen. No
doubt schools have to do something in the interests of their own
survival. But rather than take the place of parents, it would be far
better if they looked for ways to support parents in their role. If
that led to some awkward questions about social trends and policy,
better still.

Carolyn Moynihan is Deputy Editor of MercatorNet

Notes
( 1) “Children to be given classes on how to be ‘nice’,” London Telegraph, March 6, 2005
 (2) “Teachers plan charter to stamp out bad behaviour in schools,” London Telegraph, March 27, 2005
 (3) “Does Kindergarten Need Cops?” Time, December 15, 2003
 (4) “Behaviour Drugs Lead in Sales for Children,” The New York Times, May 17, 2004
 (5) Mary Eberstadt, Home Alone America: The Hidden Toll of Day
Care, Behavioural Drugs, and Other Parent Substitutes
, (New York,
Sentinel, 2004),  Introduction, p. xv
 (6) Eberstadt, p. 79
(7) “Mapping out way to better future,” New Zealand Herald, February 2, 2005
 (8) “Can’t Buy me Love?” B Pocock et al, The Australia Institute, 2004
 (9) Eberstadt, p. 106
( 10) “The Concerns of Australian Parents,” Monash University and the Australian Childhood Foundation, March 2004
( 11)  Kay S. Hymowitz, Liberation’s Children (New York, Ivan R Dee, 2003)

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet.