Sfârșitul copilăriei

Marea Britanie este cea rea țară din lumea occidentală unde poate crește un copil, conform unui raport publicat de UNICEF. În mod normal, nu mi-aș pierde vremea cu un astfel de raport. Dar în cazul de față, cred că are dreptate – nu pentru că aș ști prea multe despre copilăria din celelalte 20 de țări examinate, ci pentru că educația oferită copiilor de părinții este atât de proastă încât este greu să te gândești la ceva mai rău, cel puțin pe scară largă. Cei doi poli ai creșterii copiilor în Marea Britanie sunt neglijența și superrăsfățul.

Să luăm ca exemplu un părinte britanic, Fiona MacKeown, care în noiembrie 2007, a plecat într-o vacanță de șase luni în Goa, cu prietenul ei și opt dintre cei nouă copiii ai săi făcuți împreună cu cinci bărbați diferiți, niciunul dintre ei implicat financiar prea mult în viața copiilor. (Copilul rămas acasă, cel mai mare, de 19 ani, era dependent de droguri). Fiona MacKeown primea ajutoare sociale de 50.000 de dolari anual, și s-a gândit foarte rațional că banii vor veni în continuare, iar viața e mai plăcută în Goa decât în orașul ei natal, Devon. Odată ajunsă în Goa, MacKeown s-a decis să călătorească spre Kerala cu șapte dintre copii, lăsând-o pe fata ei de 15 ani, Scarlett Keeling să stea cu un ghid, mai mare cu 10 ani decât ea, pe care mama îl cunoscuse cu puțin timp în urmă. Potrivit unui martor, fata se droga constant. Într-o noapte, a mers la un bar, unde a băut mult, a luat mai multe stupefiante, inclusiv LSD, cocaină și marijuana. A fost văzută plecând de la bar târziu, aproape sigur amețită. A două zi, cadavrul său a fost descoperit pe plajă. La început, poliția locală a susținut că s-a înecat din cauza drogurilor, dar ulterior investigațiile au dovedit că fata a fost violată și apoi înecată. (…)

O lună mai târziu, mama lui Scarlett, intervievată de ziarul liberal «The Observer», s-a arătat mirată de indignarea publică îndreptată spre ea și stilul ei de viață. A admis că ea și copii săi trăiesc din ajutoare sociale, dar nu ca urmare a „unei decizii conștiente”. De asemenea, nu vedea nimic în neregulă cu acțiunile sale din India, cu excepția unei anumite naivități de a se încrede în omul în a cărui grijă și-a lăsat fata. Scarlett a fost întotdeauna o fată independentă, iar dacă ea, mama, ar putea întoarce ceasul înapoi, ar face la fel.
Nu este surprinzător că Fiona MacKeown își neagă neglijența. Ar fi prea dureros dacă nu ar face-o. Însă – și aici este ceva cu adevărat îngrijorător – când ziarul a întrebat patru presupuși experți în parenting ce părere au de acest caz, doar unul dintre ei a văzut ceva greșit în comportamentul mamei și chiar și acela a criticat cu rezerve. Este întotdeauna dificil de știut câtă independență trebuie acordată unui adolescent, susținea expertul, dar în acest caz, mama i-a oferit fetei prea multă și prea repede.
Chiar și acest reproș a părut neobișnuit de dur pentru «Observer». Nu ar trebui să criticăm stilul de viață al mamei, din moment ce nu are nicio legătură cu moartea fetei. „Scarlett a murit pentru simplul motiv că a fost la locul nepotrivit, în momentul nepotrivit, cu oamenii nepotriviți, fiind îndopată cu droguri, târziu în noapte, într-o țară străină”. În cazul de față, a fi la locul nepotrivit, în momentul nepotrivit, cu oamenii nepotriviți este un fapt natural brut, nu consecința deciziei voluntare, a educației și a gusturilor. Se putea întâmpla oricui, și i s-a întâmplat lui Scarlett. Cât despre droguri, apar de niciunde și îi amețesc pe oameni complet la întâmplare. Pare foarte nedrept. (…)

Merită să amintim că «Observer», ca și «Guardian», nu sunt publicații citite de ciudați, ci ziarele favorite ale intelighenției britanice, ale celor care lucrează în serviciile sociale și educaționale și ale elitelor din media (BBC își face reclamă la posturile disponibile aproape exclusiv în Guardian). (…) Cu alte cuvinte, este foarte probabil ca o mare parte dintre elitele educate să nu vadă nimic în neregulă sau să pretindă că nu văd nimic în neregulă cu atitudinea lui MacKeown.
Cred că principalul motiv pentru care elitele refuză să o critice pe MacKeown este că ar pune în discuție toate presupozițiile politicilor sociale liberale din ultimii 50 sau 60 de ani, care le oferă un puternic sentiment de superioritate morală. Ar însemna să contempli ideea eretică după care familia s-ar putea să conteze la urma urmei, la fel cum contează și calități uitate, precum autocontrolul și respectul de sine. Ar mai însemna și că dependența de ajutoare este nedreaptă pentru cei care plătesc și dezastruoasă pentru cei care ajung să fie prinși în ea. (…)

Cineva ar putea susține că acest caz este genul de întâmplare îngrozitoare care se poate întâmpla în orice societate din când în când. Dar eu cred că este doar vârful icebergului. După cum arată comentariile din ziarele liberale, problema copilăriei în Marea Britanie nu se rezumă nicidecum la clasele de jos. Societatea noastră și-a pierdut cel mai elementar simț față de nevoile copiilor. (…)
Această tendință de a nu judeca explică de ce tineretul britanic este lider mondial în indicatorii de patologie socială precum sarcini la adolescente, violență, criminalitate, alcoolism și consum de droguri. Marea Britanie este pe locul trei în topul sarcinilor la adolescente, copiii britanici au cel mai ridicat și timpuriu consum de droguri din Europa, au o probabilitate de 10 ori mai mare decât cei greci să inhaleze solvenți și o probabilitate de 7 ori mai mare să fumeze marijuana decât copiii suedezi. Aproape o treime dintre tinerii britanici cu vârste de 11, 14 și 15 ani spun că s-au îmbătat cel puțin de două ori.
Mai mult de patru din 10 copii britanici se nasc în afara căsătoriei, căsătorii oricum teribil de instabile. Chiar și mariajul și-a pierdut mare parte din înțeles. Într-o societate postreligioasă, nu mai reprezintă o taină, iar guvernul s-a asigurat că nu aduce niciun avantaj financiar, iar pentru cei de jos aduce doar dezavantaje. Facilitarea divorțului înseamnă că un sfert din căsătorii se rup în zece ani.

Consecințele acestei disfuncții sociale sunt sumbre pentru copii. 80% dintre copiii britanici au televizor în cameră. 58% mănâncă masa de seară în fața televizorului (un copil britanic petrece mai bine de cinci ore pe zi în fața unui ecran). 36% dintre copiii britanici nu mănâncă niciodată cu un alt membru al familiei, iar 34% dintre case nici măcar nu au o masă pentru familie. (…)
Ce înseamnă toate acestea? Înseamnă că acești copii nu vor învăța niciodată, dintr-un sentiment al obligației sociale, să mănânce atunci când nu le este foame și să nu mănânce atunci când le este. Apetitul este tot ceea ce contează în decizia de a mânca, o perspectivă eminamente egotistă. Din acest motiv, orice interferează cu satisfacerea apetitului va părea opresiv. Nu învață practici sociale elementare ca a împărți sau a-i lăsa pe alții primii. Din moment ce mesele sunt, de regulă, momentele în care familia face conversație, copiii nu învață nici arta conversației. A asculta ceea ce au de spus alții devine o provocare. Există un loc și un timp pentru toate. Dacă îmi place, timpul este acum, iar locul este aici. Dacă nu vor fi învățați să se auto-controleze, ei nu vor învăța.
Britanicii, niciodată încântați de copii, au pierdut toată cunoașterea sau intuiția despre cum trebuie crescuți. Drept consecință au ajuns să se teamă de ei, probabil cel mai sinistru semn pentru o societate. Semnele acestei frici se pot vedea pe fețele bătrânilor aflați în locuri publice. (…)

Britanii s-ar putea să fi fost întotdeauna înclinați spre duritate sau indiferență (sau de ambele) când vine vorba de copiii. Dar niciodată nu le-au combinat cu o indulgență materială lipsită de orice discernământ. Pacienții mei mă întreabă uneori cum au ajuns atât de rău copiii lor când ei au făcut totul pentru ei. Când îi întreb ce înseamnă „totul”, invariabil este vorba despre ultimele modele de televizoare sau cei mai la modă adidași. (…)
Sistemul de stimulente perverse într-o cultură de materialism total, în care principala libertate este libertate de consecințe legale, financiare, morale și sociale, face un chin copilăria în Marea Britanie atât pentru cei care o trăiesc cât și pentru cei de lângă.


Childhood’s End

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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3 COMENTARII

  1. Nu prea cred. Sunt convins că Mohammed, Hassan, Saeed, Hussein și Adan, cei cinci copii britanici ai familiei Annan, iau cina, în fiecare seară, cu tatăl lor, Ismail, și mama lor, Fatima. Doar că, în luna tradiționalei sărbători britanice de Ramadan, ei așteaptă asfintitul înainte de a cina. Și se duc, apoi, împreună la moschee.

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