Claire Perry, the Prime Minister’s adviser on childhood, has made the headlines by criticising a „treadmill” culture in which parents pressurise children to achieve. In an interview with the Times, she said that “It’s usually the mother that is orchestrating all of that and doing all the driving. We have created rods for our own back. Children need time to be bored.” She is not wrong. But although this is certainly true of a certain kind of highly aspirational, affluent family, it is far from universal. The most insidious problem lies elsewhere.
Consider the case of Danny Kitchen, the five-year-old boy who ran up a bill for £1,710.43 on his parents’ iPad. Every parent knows how easy it is: children have a magnetic attraction to anything with a screen, and an uncanny way of squirrelling phones and iPads away when you’re back is turned. And they seem to have been hard-wired with all the skills they need to pick up any piece of technology and start playing a game on it. There but for the grace of God, eh, mums and dads?
Maybe. But the question that’s bothering me is the one that nobody seems to be asking. What was a five-year-old doing playing a game called Zombies vs Ninjas in the first place? The fact that this hasn’t raised a single eyebrow is a depressingly accurate sign of the times. While a small demographic of parents may drive their children to breaking point, the majority tend to stick a screen in their hands and tell them to get on with it. This should cause Mrs Perry – and the rest of us – far greater concern.
I have written recently about the mystifying way in which schools have embraced screen technology without giving it the slightest thought, working on the unexamined assumption that the more digitised the classroom the better. Many parents are just as bad. It is, of course, very tempting for a harassed mum to give her child an iPad to keep him quiet. But this is a Faustian pact. Such a short term fix can have nasty results in the long term, if children lose the ability to play imaginary games and entertain themselves when boredom strikes.
A child who can only be content with a screen in hand is an accident waiting to happen. With their capacity for creative and multisensory play stunted by a blaring gadget, they will develop into a different and terrifying breed of adult. (Especially when that screen is used for horrible games like Zombies vs Ninjas.) This parenting style has become hugely dominant in recent years, to the extent that it is rarely challenged. We’re looking at evolutionary backsliding, people.
And that is not all. When not exposed to screens, many children are simply thrust into one commercially designed environment after another, all of which seem intended to deaden the imagination. On the weekend I found myself in the particular circle of hell that is a „soft play centre”. If you don’t know what that means, count yourself lucky. In a side-room, a little girl was having a sixth birthday party for about fifteen other girls. Every single one was wearing a „princess dress”, gaudy pieces of nylon often produced by Disney that make children look like so many Easter eggs. Or Barbie Dolls. Every single one was wearing plastic jewellery and make-up, and stuffing brightly-coloured sweets into their mouths. The birthday girl was sitting on a bulbous plastic throne. This was the second party to be held there that day; as soon as their time was up they were shepherded out, and the stage was re-set for another group of girls in pink nylon. As the first group left, many of them were already playing on iPads and phones. It was like a battery farm producing the cretins of the future.
Of course, television and video games have a place. For older children, certain games in particular can be immensely creative and stimulating, if played in moderation. The problem is that many parents have little concept of moderation, and even less insight into the basic necessities of childhood. Britain’s children are growing up swamped in a toxic combination of endless screentime, tacky and tedious toys, sexualised clothing, gender stereotyping and unhealthy foods. This is the real problem, not the mothers who panic if their baby gets an A minus in Greek.