Britain is the worst country in the Western
world in which to be a child, according to a recent UNICEF report.
Ordinarily, I would not set much store by such a report; but in this
case, I think it must be right—not because I know so much about
childhood in all the other 20 countries examined but because the
childhood that many British parents give to their offspring is so awful
that it is hard to conceive of worse, at least on a mass scale. The two
poles of contemporary British child rearing are neglect and
Consider one British parent, Fiona MacKeown, who in November 2007
went on a six-month vacation to Goa, India, with her boyfriend and
eight of her nine children by five different fathers, none of whom ever
contributed financially for long to the children’s upkeep. (The child
left behind—her eldest, at 19—was a drug addict.) She received $50,000
in welfare benefits a year, and doubtless decided—quite rationally,
under the circumstances—that the money would go further, and that life
would thus be more agreeable, in Goa than in her native Devon.
Reaching Goa, MacKeown soon decided to travel with seven of her
children to Kerala, leaving behind one of them, 15-year-old Scarlett
Keeling, to live with a tour guide ten years her elder, whom the mother
had known for only a short time. Scarlett reportedly claimed to have
had sex with this man only because she needed a roof over her head.
According to a witness, she was constantly on drugs; and one night, she
went to a bar where she drank a lot and took several different illicit
drugs, including LSD, cocaine, and pot. She was seen leaving the bar
late, almost certainly intoxicated.
The next morning, her body turned up on a beach. At first, the local
police maintained that she had drowned while high, but further
examination proved that someone had raped and then forcibly drowned
her. So far, three people have been arrested in the investigation,
which is continuing.
About a month later, Scarlett’s mother, interviewed by the liberal Sunday newspaper the Observer,
expressed surprise at the level of public vituperation aimed at her and
her lifestyle in the aftermath of the murder. She agreed that she and
her children lived on welfare, but “not by conscious choice,” and she
couldn’t see anything wrong with her actions in India apart from a
certain naivety in trusting the man in whose care she had left her
daughter. Scarlett was always an independent girl, and if she, the
mother, could turn the clock back, she would behave exactly the same
It is not surprising that someone in Fiona MacKeown’s position would
deny negligence; to acknowledge it would be too painful. But—and this
is what is truly disturbing—when the newspaper asked four supposed
child-rearing experts for their opinions, only one saw anything wrong
with the mother’s behavior, and even she offered only muted criticism.
It was always difficult to know how much independence to grant an
adolescent, the expert said; but in her view, the mother had granted
too much too quickly to Scarlett.
Even that seemed excessively harsh to the Observer’s Barbara
Ellen. We should not criticize the mother’s way of life, she wrote,
since it had nothing to do with her daughter’s death: “Scarlett died
for the simple fact that she was in the wrong place at the wrong time
with the wrong people, as well as being blitzed with drugs, late at
night, in a foreign country.” On this view, being in the wrong place at
the wrong time with the wrong people is a raw fact of nature, not the
result of human agency, decision, education, or taste. It could happen
to anybody, and it just happened to happen to Scarlett. As for drugs,
they emerge from the ether and blitz people completely at random. It
all seems very unfair.
A columnist for the left-wing Guardian took a similarly exculpatory line:
Anyone taking even a fleeting glance at recent news will
have picked up a crucial message: women with children by more than one
partner are apparently hussies, who deserve everything they get. The
opprobrium . . . served up to Fiona MacKeown, mother of murdered
15-year-old, Scarlett Keeling . . . has been hideous to behold. The
spitting criticism is particularly interesting when you compare it to
attitudes to men in the public eye. Rod Stewart (seven children by five
women), Jack Nicholson (five children by four women), and Mick Jagger
(seven children by four women) are painted as great, swinging studs.
Anyone else smell a vile double standard?
No one criticizes Rod Stewart, Jack
Nicholson, or Mick Jagger for how they behave; therefore, apparently,
there was nothing wrong with how Fiona MacKeown behaved.
It is worth remembering that the Observer and the Guardian
are not the publications of a lunatic fringe but the preferred
newspapers of the British intelligentsia, of those who work in the
educational and social services, and of broadcasting elites (the BBC
advertises vacancies almost exclusively in the Guardian). Not
every person who reads these newspapers agrees with everything written
in them—and both, commendably, offer a little space to writers whose
worldview differs from their own—but the general moral tone must be one
with which most readers agree. In other words, it is likely that a
large part of the educated elite sees nothing wrong, or at least
affects to see nothing wrong, with MacKeown’s conduct.
This nonjudgmentalism surely helps explain
why British youth are among the Western world’s leaders in such
indicators of social pathology as teenage pregnancy, violence,
criminality, underage drinking, and consumption of illicit drugs.
Britain has the third-highest rate of teenage pregnancy in the
industrialized world, according to the UNICEF report (only the United
States and New Zealand are higher)—a startling case recently made
headlines of 16-, 14-, and 12-year-old sisters, all of whom gave birth
within a year of one another. British children have the earliest and
highest consumption of cocaine of any young people in Europe, are ten
times more likely to sniff solvents than are Greek children, and are
six to seven times more likely to smoke pot than are Swedish children.
Almost a third of British young people aged 11, 13, and 15 say they
have been drunk at least twice.
What explains the nonjudgmental attitude among elites? The
reluctance to criticize Fiona MacKeown might be an expression of
sympathy for someone in the throes of grief: however foolishly (or
worse) she behaved, she certainly did not deserve the murder of her
daughter. Furthermore, the Guardian and Observer
journalists might argue, we do not know enough about the details of her
life to criticize her fairly. Perhaps she is a good mother in most
respects; perhaps her children, apart from the drug addict and the
murdered Scarlett, are happy, and will lead lives of fulfillment and
achievement. After all, no style of upbringing guarantees success or,
for that matter, failure; and therefore we should suspend judgment
I suspect, however, that the main consideration inhibiting elite
criticism of MacKeown is that passing judgment would call into question
the shibboleths of liberal social policy for the last 50 or 60
years—beliefs that give their proponents a strong sense of moral
superiority. It would be to entertain the heretical thought that family
structure might matter after all, along with such qualities as
self-restraint and self-respect; and that welfare dependency is unjust
to those who pay for it and disastrous for those who wind up trapped in
One day after Scarlett Keeling’s murder, a
nine-year-old girl, Shannon Matthews, went missing from her home in
Dewsbury, in northern England. Twenty-four days later, after an
extensive police search, she was found alive, locked in a drawer under
a bed in her stepfather’s uncle’s house. Police soon arrested the
stepfather, 22-year-old Craig Meehan, for possession of 140
pornographic pictures of children, and charged the uncle, Michael
Donovan, with kidnapping. Shannon’s mother, Karen Matthews, 32, was
also arrested, for child cruelty, neglect, and obstructing the police
by lying during the search for her daughter.
Karen Matthews, who received welfare payments of $40,000 a year, had
borne seven children to five different men. She called two of her
children with the same father “the twins,” thus transferring the
meaning of “twin” from the relatively unusual biological occurrence of
double birth to what she clearly thought the equally unusual social
circumstance of full siblinghood. Three of her children lived with
their fathers, and four lived with her and Meehan, whom Shannon
reportedly regarded as her father. Shannon’s true father—one Leon Rose,
who has since “moved on” to live with another “partner”—apparently was
happy to find himself usurped by the young Meehan; but Karen Matthews’s
brother reported that Shannon often spoke of Meehan’s violence to her
and of her deep unhappiness at home.
The reasons for Shannon’s abduction have not yet emerged, but again the Guardian
managed to distract the reader’s attention from less than optimal
family arrangements. Instead, it ran an upbeat story on the housing
project where the Matthews family lived; that way, the obvious could be
ignored rather than denied. The Sun, a tabloid newspaper whose
readership is virtually entirely working-class, had described the
project as “like Beirut—only worse.” But the Guardian, whose
readership is largely middle-class and employed in the public sector,
drew attention to the improvements that had taken place in the project,
thanks to the local council’s having spent $8 million on it over the
last three years—supplying traffic bollards shaped like penguins, for
example. Before the improvements, one resident said, “We’d houses
burgled, sheds burned, caravans blown up.” Now, only one house in 90 is
robbed per year; and, thanks to the penguins, joy-riding by youths in
stolen cars is presumably much reduced. The implication is clear: with
more public spending of this kind everywhere in the country,
administered by Guardian readers and their peers, everything
will be all right. It won’t matter in the slightest if children either
have no fathers, or different fathers every few years.
One might dismiss the stories of Scarlett
Keeling and Shannon Matthews as the kind of horrific things that can
take place in any society from time to time. But I think that they are
the tip of an iceberg. As the liberal newspapers’ response shows, the
problem with British childhood is by no means confined to the
underclass. Our society has lost the most elementary common sense about
what children need.
More than four out of ten British children are born out of wedlock;
the unions of which they are the issue are notoriously unstable. Even
marriage has lost much of its meaning. In a post-religious society, it
is no longer a sacrament. The government has ensured that marriage
brings no fiscal advantages and, indeed, for those at the lower end of
the social scale, that it has only disadvantages. Easy divorce means
that a quarter of all marriages break up within a decade.
The results of this social dysfunction are grim for children. Eighty
percent of British children have televisions in their bedrooms, more
than have their biological fathers at home. Fifty-eight percent of
British children eat their evening meal in front of the television (a
British child spends more than five hours per day watching a screen);
36 percent never eat any meals together with other family members; and
34 percent of households do not even own dining tables. In the prison
where I once worked, I discovered that many inmates had never eaten at
a table together with someone else.
Let me speculate briefly on the implications of these startling
facts. They mean that children never learn, from a sense of social
obligation, to eat when not hungry, or not to eat when they are.
Appetite is all they need consult in deciding whether to eat—a purely
egotistical outlook. Hence anything that interferes with the
satisfaction of appetite will seem oppressive. They do not learn such
elementary social practices as sharing or letting others go first.
Since mealtimes are usually when families get to converse, the children
do not learn the art of conversation, either; listening to what others
say becomes a challenge. There is a time and place for everything: if I
feel like it, the time is now, and the place is here.
If children are not taught self-control,
they do not learn it. Violence against teachers is increasing: injuries
suffered by teachers at the hands of pupils rose 20 percent between
2000 and 2006, and in one survey, which may or may not be
representative, 53 percent of teachers had objects thrown at them, 26
percent had been attacked with furniture or equipment, 2 percent had
been threatened with a knife, and 1 percent with a gun. Nearly 40
percent of teachers have taken time off to recover from violent
incidents at students’ hands. About a quarter of British teachers have
been assaulted by their students over the last year.
The British, never fond of children, have lost all knowledge or
intuition about how to raise them; as a consequence, they now fear
them, perhaps the most terrible augury possible for a society. The
signs of this fear are unmistakable on the faces of the elderly in
public places. An involuntary look of distaste, even barely controlled
terror, crosses their faces if a group of young teens approaches; then
they try to look as if they are not really there, hoping to avoid
trouble. And the children themselves are afraid. The police say that
many children as young as eight are carrying knives for protection.
Violent attacks by the young between ten and 17, usually on other
children, have risen by 35 percent in the last four years.
The police, assuming that badly behaved children will become future
criminals, have established probably the largest database of DNA
profiles in the world: 1.1 million samples from children aged ten to
18, taken over the last decade, and at an accelerating rate (some law
enforcement officials have advocated that every child should have a DNA
profile on record). Since the criminal-justice system reacts to the
commission of serious crimes hardly at all, however, British youth do
not object to the gathering of the samples: they know that they largely
act with impunity, profiles or no profiles.
The British may have always inclined toward
harshness or neglect (or both) in dealing with children; but never
before have they combined such attitudes with an undiscriminating
material indulgence. My patients would sometimes ask me how it was that
their children had turned out so bad when they had done everything for
them. When I asked them what they meant by “everything,” it invariably
meant the latest televisions in their bedrooms or the latest
fashionable footwear—to which modern British youth attaches far more
importance than Imelda Marcos ever did.
Needless to say, the British state’s response to the situation that
it has in part created is simultaneously authoritarian and
counterproductive. The government pretends, for example, that the
problem of child welfare is one of raw poverty. Britain does have the
highest rate of child poverty, bar the United States, in the West, as
defined (as it usually is) by the percentage of children living in
households with an income of less than 50 percent of the median.
(Whether this is a sensible definition of poverty is a subject rarely
broached.) But after many years of various redistributive measures and
billions spent to reduce it, child poverty is, if anything, more
The British government thus pursues social welfare policies that
encourage the creation of households like the Matthews’, and then
seeks, via yet more welfare spending, to reduce the harm done to
children in them. But was the Matthews household poor, in any but an
artificial sense? At the time of Shannon’s current stepfather’s arrest,
the household income was $72,000; it lived free of rent and local
taxes, and it boasted three computers and a large plasma-screen
television. Would another $5,000 or $10,000 or $20,000 have made any
A system of perverse incentives in a culture of undiscriminating
materialism, where the main freedom is freedom from legal, financial,
ethical, or social consequences, makes childhood in Britain a torment
both for many of those who live it and those who observe it. Yet the
British government will do anything but address the problem, or that
part of the problem that is its duty to address: the state-encouraged
breakdown of the family. If one were a Marxist, one might see in this
refusal the self-interest of the state-employee class: social problems,
after all, are their raison d’être.