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Childhood’s End By: Theodore Dalrymple
City Journal | Tuesday, August 19, 2008


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 overindulgence.

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 way again.

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 about her.

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 it.

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 widespread.

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 difference?

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.


Theodore Dalrymple, a physician, is a contributing editor of City Journal and the Dietrich Weismann Fellow at the Manhattan Institute.


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