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Sunday, Nov. 4, 2007
The kids are not OK, top educator warns
By TOMOKO OTAKE
To a growing legion of educated, enlightened and empowered mothers in Japan and abroad, Sue Palmer's advice on how to bring up children might sound — if not heard in context — too old-fashioned, too alarmist or even maybe too naive to prepare their loved ones for the rapidly changing, fiercely competitive society of the 21st century.
The prominent literacy specialist from Edinburgh sparked debate in Britain and elsewhere last year, when she suggested in her ominously titled book "Toxic Childhood" that the rapid social changes of our lives, including the shift in women's roles and our increasingly technology-driven culture, are damaging children's mental health, as well as causing a wide array of learning and behavioral problems.
Sure, we have all come to hear more about a growing list of problems afflicting children, including bullying, dyslexia, autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and Asperger's syndrome. But can they really be resolved by the no-nonsense tips in Palmer's book? Are they simply down to junk food, the lack of time we spend with kids, or our gaming and TV cultures?
While science has yet to fully discover the causes of these complex problems, with experts saying that some are at least in part genetic and neurobiological, Palmer, 58, suggests — through her exhaustive research of written materials and many interviews with experts — that the modern childhood has been rendered "toxic" by all of these little "risk factors" combined together: poor diet, lack of sleep and outdoor play, too much staring at screens, and excessive consumerism.
Where do we start to change things? And who is responsible? Palmer does not mince words when she says the "quality time" argument of recent decades — which assured career-oriented moms that everything would be fine if they spend 20 "quality" minutes with their kids every day — was a "desperate excuse" by women to feel better about abandoning their traditional responsibilities.
But she clearly separates herself from those die-hard types with a stone-age mind-set that women belong only in the kitchen. In an interview with The Japan Times during her weeklong visit to Japan last week, which coincided with the publication of the Japanese translation of her book, titled "Kodomo wa Naze Monsuta ni Narunoka (Why Children Become Monsters)" (published by Shogakukan), Palmer stressed she is just as guilt-ridden as any other career woman and the mother of a grownup daughter.
"All the way through writing the book, I was getting [these thoughts like], 'Ah! I failed on that! Oh, I did that wrong!' And I would ask my daughter, 'Do you think I harmed you?' " she recalled with a laugh in the corner of the faculty room at Yokohama International School, where she was visiting as a keynote speaker for the school's annual Bridging the Gap Conference for teachers, parents and the wider community. She also responded with an emphatic "We are not playing a blame game!" when a 10th-grade male student at YIS asked her who is to blame for the misery of today's children. She added, later, that we all need to talk more, share problems and rebuild communities — instead of waiting for the state to act or resigning in fatalism.
"If you could detoxify children's lives, you can detoxify society," she said.
What follows is an abridged version of a two-hour interview.
First of all, why did you decide to write "Toxic Childhood"?
Because nobody else was doing it. Ten years ago, I was getting stories from teachers, wherever I went, who were saying that children were more distractible than they had been, particularly in the poorer parts of the country (Britain); that their language was deteriorating; that they could not listen well. Also, you were getting more low-level issues. They were saying that children were not getting along with each other as well, and problems with behavior and the incidences of bullying seemed to be getting worse.
And the first time you hear someone say that, you think, "Oh, it's just the usual. . . . People have always said this." But because I travel around the country, and I was hearing the same thing everywhere I went, I started thinking, "Maybe something is going on."
I thought it probably had to do with a huge increase in (watching) TV that happened over the late '80s and in the '90s. In the 1990s, we got an explosion with satellite and cable and got into specialized children's television programs, and we got a really big phenomenon of people putting television into children's bedrooms, which I don't think is as big in other parts of the world. Do they do it as much here?
No, I don't think so.
You see, they are talking about 80 percent of children under 12 now (in Britain who have a TV in their bedrooms). Forty percent of children under 4! And that seemed to me to be a possibility for the reason behind it all.
Then I bumped into another researcher who was coming at it from a totally different point of view. She said children don't move as much as they used to. From the earliest age, they are strapped into car seats and strapped into buggies. We just aren't giving them the same freedom indoors, but also they are nowhere near as free as they were to go out. So I started checking up and asking people about this, and people were saying things like, "Yes! Children today — everybody's got designer clothes for their children, and children don't want to get dirty."
They are all small things like this, but you start putting them all together. . . . So I brainstormed with some teachers. And we thought (about) all the things, and I put those onto a questionnaire, and over the course of six months I doled out the questionnaires wherever I went until I got 1,000 responses. (Of the 10 risk factors Palmer cited in her questionnaire, the factors that teachers believed affected student performance most were, in order of the number of votes: Too much TV, lack of sleep, lack of talk at home, poor parenting skills and family breakdown. Factors such as poor diet and lack of outdoor play/exercise trailed closely.)