Riots in the UK – what parents need to do to stop the violence

There were appalling scenes of violence again last night in London and other cities around the UK for the third night in a row. And there is no excuse at all for this violence – for all that Ken Livingstone tried to blame the violence on anger generated by government cuts, it is obvious to all who witnessed it that this was just criminal behaviour on the part of young men, some of them still essentially children in their early or pre-teens. Theresa May is right – this is pure criminality: no amount of anger about lack of fairness or opportunity in life justifies stealing and damage to the property of others. And if these young people do feel hard done by in life, they should go to East Africa, where they would be lucky to reach adulthood. People who are really suffering and in poverty do not have mobile phones from which they can organise flash mobs to loot and pillage. This is totally unacceptable copycat crime.

What makes these young people think that it is ok to take what isn’t theirs, to injure and destroy? What messages have they received in their lives that encourage them to feel that it is permissible to behave outside the bounds of rules and laws that are in place to help ease the workings of society? No system is perfect, and we have to keep working hard – oh, so hard – to find ways to engage all of our young people positively and fruitfully in society, for their long term wellbeing and happiness as well as the effective working of society – but we also have to be firm and strong in saying and showing that this kind of behaviour is entirely wrong. For this to happen, we must as an absolute priority make sure that we work together in schools and communities to support parents to learn how to parent and how to make sure their children have the boundaries they need to function in the world.

When boundaries are not enforced from an early age – and I mean by parents, schools and other adults in the community, and not the police, who should be the last resort to ensure law and order – then lawlessness is bound to ensue. It is never too late to start – parents, adults, members of the community all need to be clear and unequivocal in the messages they are giving out. Let’s not lose the moral high ground and express ourselves physically or verbally in anger and aggression – what message does this send out? – but let us ensure that we are crystal clear in our response, both in words and action.

If this violence doesn’t stop soon – now – then more livelihoods are going to be destroyed, more homes are going to be lost, families are going to suffer, and the chances are extremely high that people are going to be seriously injured and even killed. Parents – stop your children going out tonight. Families and communities – stand up and say ‘enough’. Citizens – follow the example of the people of Birmingham and help clean up your cities to show that togetherness and goodness will prevail. Speak out and stop this now.

‘An Education’: Carey Mulligan and girls’ schools

A parent of a girl at my school said to me a few weeks ago that the Oscar-nominated and BAFTA-winning 2009 film ‘An Education’, starring Carey Mulligan, should be compulsory viewing for all teenage girls, and now that I have (finally) seen it, I entirely agree. The film takes us on the journey of a highly intelligent girl, destined for Oxford, who feels that there is more to life than ‘dead’ study, and is seduced into a seemingly richer, more life-affirming existence, only to discover – the hard way – that it is little more than smoke and mirrors, and there is value to hard work after all.

The message is of course the right one – keep working hard, beware the easy path etc … just the sort of thing of which you would expect a Headmistress to approve. But what interested me too was the attitude towards girls and women which the film reflected, and which was entirely believable as a historical portrayal. Jenny’s father was determined that she should go to Oxford … but only, it emerges, so that she can marry a better match; Jenny’s mother, an understated role which reflects her subservience in the family hierarchy, reveals in one ascerbic comment to her husband that ‘she did have a life before she was married’; and the girls’ school which Jenny attends is portrayed as dry, repressed and hide-bound by rules – so much so that the Headmistress, played by the redoubtable Emma Thompson – refuses to give Jenny a second chance.

Carey Mulligan herself attended a girls’ school, and it was the making of her. She is quoted elsewhere as saying: “I had wanted to act for a really long time, but other schools I had been to did not have such good drama departments. Everyone was so encouraging. You could do anything you wanted to, although you had to take it seriously.’ This is what I personally recognise in girls’ schools today – this sense of limitless possibility and total encouragement of the individual. They are incredible places – and I make no secret of my enthusiasm.

Still, it is interesting how much prejudice remains about girls’ schools – how much people still imagine them to be ‘dry’ or ‘repressed’. To what extent is this a sign of the dying embers of the inherent sexism that has marked our education system over the centuries, with the education of boys and sons valued much more highly than that of girls and daughters? There is a very high likelihood that it is. What we must remember is not to take such prejudices at face value, and challenge them when we encounter them. Girls’ schools are amazing, and I am very proud indeed of mine.

The risk of not taking risks

A quietly uplifting article about Forest Schools appeared in the pages of this week’s Wednesday’s Times. If you can’t read it online, then do at least look at this website about the phenomenon of Forest Schools – this model of outdoor schools, relatively common in Scandinavia, is being adopted by a number of schools in this country, and is definitely a ‘good news’ story.

Whilst a part of us may feel a little nervous about the prospects of allowing our children to explore the outside environment unhindered by too many rules or constraints, the upsides of freedom and the development of self-regulation undoubtedly outweigh the downsides. And how exciting for the children – to be able to roam around and just explore and have fun! I am certain that enough rules must be in place to make it safe enough – otherwise I doubt that Sandfield Natural Play Centre would have been awarded an ‘outstanding’ rating by Ofsted – but the real attraction is that this is in fact a riskier environment than our children have grown used to.

The real risk, of course, in a world which we endeavour to make as ‘risk-free’ as possible for our children, is that they do not learn how to deal with risk at all. And if this world in which we live is anything, it is risky, and we need to prepare our young people for this, so that they learn how to deal with this risk safely. Catherine Prisk, head of Play England, was quoted in The Times as saying: ‘If a child is given only a safe environment to play in, they will create their own risks. If they are presented with something more risky, they take more care.’, and this struck home as an obvious truth: the more that we have had the chance to get to know ourselves as adults, the better the judgements we take – it makes perfect sense, therefore, that the more that children are exposed to situations where they have to develop independent judgements and learn to know their capacities, the more balanced and wise they are going to become.

I suspect that the university of the outdoors beckons!

Anorexia in children – when will we wise up to what we are doing?

Monday’s front page headlines in both The Sun and The Daily Mail led on a story first published in the previous day’s Sunday Telegraph about the rise in eating disorders in children under 13. The frustration of most articles dealing with figures, facts and medical science is that they tend to obscure the reality with bad mathematics (Ben Goldacre fulminates regularly about this in his blog ‘Bad Science‘), but this time we do have something concrete: 197 children between the ages of 5-9 were treated in hospital last year for eating disorders – a figure that is apparently almost double the number of the previous year.

None of the other figures in the article is compared in the same way, so it is difficult to attempt to draw a real pattern, especially as a number of the hospitals approached under the Freedom of Information Act refused to disclose information, and some only included in their numbers in-patients who were dangerously ill, rather than also adding in those being treated as out-patients. However, it is clear from this one figure alone – referring to children who are shockingly young to be suffering from psychological disorders – that we have a real issue on our hands.

How have we come to this situation? Although Great Ormond Street spokespeople were at pains to stress that there can be many reasons for disordered eating in young children, many parents of daughters in particular have noticed unhealthy attitudes to food/diets/appearance at early ages. Tanith Carey, whose book on the sexualisation of girls, ‘Where has my little girl gone?‘ I reviewed in an earlier blog, describes (also in the Daily Mail) how her own six-year old daughter has become very aware of calories and food and the effect on appearance – the message that being ‘too fat’ is a crime is already embedded in the mindsets of young girls. Inevitably, the distorted view of the world that results – the sense of never being able to attain what is necessary to be ‘good’ or even just ‘ok’ – is leading to intense psychological pressure. It is no wonder that eating disorders are on the rise amongst our children.

Who is to blame? Actually, we all are. We have all participated in creating a kind of fantasy world in which women are only seen to be successful if they are unrealistically thin and groomed – apparently effortlessly, but actually the result of several hours of attention. Newspapers and magazines need to stop falling into the trap of illustrating all their articles with gratuitous photos of women who meet these implausible criteria; advertisers need to stop airbrushing photos to make women seem extraordinary; people in the public eye (including the women whose photos are used) have a responsibility to stand up and be counted against the pressures that children face from the images around them; we need to be ultra-aware of the messages we are sending out about appearance, and we must prepare our children to be savvy to them too. Finally, feel free to refuse to buy for children any dolls, magazines, toys – anything, in fact – that perpetuate the myth.

Do something today to make a difference.

Opt-in not opt-out – why we need to press ISPs to block porn

A short article on page 4 of Thursday’s Times sent me scurrying to find out the truth behind the words. The article claimed that tens of thousands of parents have blocked their children’s access to suicide and self-harm websites on home computers, using TalkTalk’s relatively new HomeSafe service, which requires all new users to set controls and limits (from zero to a wide range) as part of the set-up process; although you still have to choose HomeSafe in the first place, this ISP is at least ahead of the other ISPs in providing a service which doesn’t involve the installation of filter software – it is to some extent more opt-in than opt-out. These figures provided an encouraging start, but the article then went on to say that ‘Fewer than 25 per cent of parents who signed up to the service blocked pornographic sites or sites about drugs, tobacco and alcohol’. This sounded perplexing, and so I went on the trail of more information.

After searching for a while online for a press release, and drawing a blank, I had a very nice conversation with Alex in the TalkTalk press office, who shared with me that although they hadn’t yet officially released any figures, it was becoming clear that more customers were opting to block websites that encouraged suicide or self-harm, including pro-anorexia websites, than were blocking other potentially harmful sites such as those promoting porn, or dealing with smoking, tobacco and alcohol. The percentages weren’t vastly different, in fact, and of course there are many imponderables in there too – do they distinguish between websites discouraging smoking and those advocating the use of cannabis, for example? Moreover, it was actually impossible to tell whether these customers were parents or not, which somewhat skews the figures in the article.

However, the bottom line is that of all TalkTalk’s new customers in the past 2 months, around 75% of them have thought that unfiltered access to the internet is – by default – a good thing, and it is a fair bet that a proportion of these are parents. We need no other proof of the intense potential dangers of the online world, of the disconnect that can happen between reality and fantasy, with fatal consequences, than the case of Joshua Davies, who has just been convicted for murdering his girlfriend. One of the most chilling aspects was the testimony of his friend, who apparently encouraged him in text messages and yet didn’t think Davies’ explicit fantasies were real – ‘I thought he was only joking’. Well, he wasn’t, and a precious life was lost as a result.

The point here is not that all unfiltered access leads to murder; the point is that we have not yet become savvy enough as a society to recognise the dangers of unfettered exposure to potentially harmful ways of thinking. We are too naive … and if we are, then so certainly are our children, and we should protect them.

If you have a moment, visit the Safermedia website or the website of Claire Perry MP – they are campaigning for ISPs to have opt-in rather than opt-out filters. Let’s wise up.

The redemption of Amy Winehouse

Abraham Lincoln said once that the best way to predict the future is to create it, and for me, that determination translates into a positive, optimistic, personal philosophy: good can and should come out of everything, no matter how bad, tragic or awful, as long as we make sure that it does. So when someone dies, we need to look, as we reflect on their life and seek to honour the person, at what we can learn and how we can make sure that the effect of their life – and sometimes their death – is a life-enhancing one.

It would be easy to be sanctimonious in examining Amy Winehouse’s life and draw attention to the lessons to be learned about the consequences of the toxic cocktail of all those drugs and drink that clearly damaged her, and will almost certainly have contributed to some extent to her early death, even if this happened because she was trying to dry out, as reported in the Daily Mail today. And of course we should use every opportunity to communicate to our young people that a drug-fuelled or hedonistic lifestyle is ultimately not the path to happiness that it might appear. But there are two more important aspects to her life from which we can learn – the power of her music and her love of her family – and these have the potential to be lasting positive legacies of her life.

Her musical persona was amazing – that voice, that hair, that face. By all accounts, at her best she was compelling in performance – a kind of white soul icon who transported fans back in time while grounding them firmly in the harsh realities of life in the noughties. She didn’t shy away from controversial subjects, and she seemed just to tell it as she saw it, in an uncompromising, direct, no-nonsense way. We may not agreed with all she said, but we respected her right – and her capacity – to sing it. Her music will live on.

And as for family, one of the images that will remain with us is that of the then 26 year old Amy cuddling up to her father and sucking her thumb. Family was important to her, and her family are distraught at her death. When a daughter/son/brother/sister dies, the scale of loss felt by their family is unimaginable. We are reminded of the intense strength of family relationships, and how we would do anything we could to protect our children from harm. And we share in the grief for Amy’s loss with her family. She was, after all, just a child.

To my friend Sue …

I climbed a hill last night – a real hill, not a metaphorical one – up past our local white horse carved into the chalk, with beautiful views over Wiltshire. The sun was setting, and this lent a soft red glow to the distance, where 4 hot air balloons drifted in tiny silhouette. A low mist in the valley was settling over the poplar trees in the valley, and the cows were lowing softly – the only sound other than birdsong to break the silence.

But beautiful as they were, the surroundings were not what was important – what was important was that I was with my friend Sue, whom I see only rarely because I (and she) lead such busy lives that there are always good reasons not to make the effort to meet up. I am particularly guilty in this respect, especially in term time, when school takes over my life entirely, from dawn to dusk, but Sue has never given up on me over the seven years she has known me. She has often insisted on meeting up, on taking me out of my intense existence just to talk about ‘ordinary’ things, just to enjoy being ‘normal’.

So last night we talked as we walked about ordinary stuff, about normal everyday life – about what we were doing, about how we were balancing all the things we were doing all of the time, about the future and about the past. And as we talked, I experienced an immense feeling of gratitude for this friendship, and I was reminded immediately and powerfully of the value of female friendships.

We hear all the time about negative female-female relationships – woman bosses who are more difficult to work for than male bosses, or women being unkind to other women about their appearance and/or their life choices (just follow the strings of comments on the Daily Mail online …). Girls have the reputation of being far meaner, harsher, more judgemental in relationships than boys – ‘cattier’, ‘bitchier’ – and when we talk about Queen Bee syndrome, we know we are not talking about men.

And yet women have the capacity to create enormously supportive relationships and sustain an amazing companionship. Fantastic business mentoring schemes for women have been springing up for several years now, and girls when they are together develop incredibly strong and lasting friendships (I cite the Year 13 leavers at my own school, year-on-year, as a phenomenal example). Our female friends see us through the ups and downs of our lives, and our time on this planet is richer as a result. We need to remember this, just as we need to remember too to invest time and care in our female friends if our friendships are to flourish and deepen.

To my friend Sue, thank you for reminding me of this. And thank you for investing in our friendship.

Too Big To Fail? Could women have saved Wall Street?

Part of the joy of the summer is being able to catch up on reading and thinking, and I am two-thirds of the way through Andrew Ross Sorkin‘s epic book about the 2008 battle to save Lehman Brothers and, by extension, the entire financial sector: ‘Too Big To Fail’. It is a great read, and was well-received when it was published first in 2009, and then again with an afterword in 2010. I have been particularly struck so far by the following about the bankers of Wall Street:

  1. The sums of money they were dealing with were astronomical – billions and trillions of dollars: sums beyond our understanding and grasp. And the associated salaries were breathtakingly, obscenely vast, especially when you turn on the news today and see what is happening in East Africa, with 10 million people who have nothing. This was inequality laid bare.
  2. They had completely lost perspective on what they were doing with that money. In their simplest form, banks create money by lending, but there were people at work in these banks in the years before it all went horribly wrong who were thinking up ever-more creative ways of making enormous debts seem like huge bonanzas. It was all so complicated, so sliced, diced and repackaged, that only a few people could understand it – but plenty of people liked the financial boost it seemed to bring their balance sheet, and they let the practice go on unchecked, ignoring the basic dangers – obvious to anyone else who has to budget for their own household – that this was all imaginary money.
  3. They did work hard. I write this somewhat grudgingly, of course, given the upshot of all this hard work, and how it led to a near financial collapse and a direct and painful impact on the lives of millions of hard-working people who have suffered as a result, but it is clear from the book – which relates scores of early morning management team meetings (including at weekends), 18 hour days and limited holidays – that these people did put in the hours and the effort. While with hindsight – always an easier place to ride a moral high horse – it was clearly misdirected, it seemed worth it at the time, and proves the maxim that hard work is necessary to achieve anything in life. It still doesn’t excuse the salaries, though.
  4. They were all, almost to a man, as it were, men. The cast of players contains the odd woman, but almost without exception the main players were men – white, middle-aged men. Funnily enough, social class seemed not to be an issue – there were plenty of stories of men who from inauspicious beginnings had risen through the ranks on merit to reach the giddy heights of CEO – but race and gender certainly were. This was a function of our social history, certainly, but in the same year that a black man became President, choosing as his Secretary of State a woman who had narrowly lost to him in the race to become the Presidential nominee, you can’t help but wonder why Wall Street was so far behind in terms of equality.

We know that the gender pay gap in the City of London financial district rises from 19.8% to over 30%. We know, as a result of Lord Davies’ report in February 2011 into Women on Boards (which set the target of raising the percentage from the current woeful 12.5%) that ‘There is growing evidence to show that diverse boards are better boards, delivering financial out-performance and stock market growth.‘. Would Wall Street have been saved if there had been more women in top jobs? Harriet Harman thought so at the time, but the truth is that we can never revisit history, and we will never know. Something in me is less sure about the underpinning notion that women would make better bankers because somehow they are less prone to risk-taking behaviour; balanced risk-taking can be extremely good, both for the individual (who will be stretched and challenged by it), and for institutions (who will develop a creativity and dynamism which moves them forward in every respect). Risk-taking is certainly not restricted to men – look at what girls’ schools are teaching! Risk-taking is something that we should be teaching all our young people in life.

What matters, of course, is not the risk-taking itself but the ethics behind it. That was what was lacking on Wall Street. Without a moral purpose, it was bound to fail eventually. No wonder it all went wrong.

If you have a daughter, read this book now! A review of Tanith Carey’s ‘Where has my little girl gone?’

Tanith Carey’s latest book is an excellent, eminently readable depiction of the sexualised landscape that faces our daughters today, accompanied by clear, unequivocal messages and advice about how as parents we should respond. Her non-nonsense attitude is both refreshing and uplifting; she gives parents hope and determination in equal measure as they set about guiding their daughters through the tween and teen stages of their lives.

Beginning with an exploration of the beliefs we hold as parents in respect of how we view our daughters’ interaction with the sexualised world around them – beliefs which we recognise as a parent, but which look extraordinarily naive when committed to the written page in front of our eyes – the book moves swiftly on to practical advice for mothers, fathers and schools. It is our joint responsibility to help ready our daughters for the world around them, and we can do this be beginning early, by seeking to understand our daughters at a deeper, more real level than we have perhaps assumed is possible, and by not being afraid to protect and prepare in equal measure. Intervention is not only allowed, but welcomed – by all, including, you will find, your daughter.

Ms Carey is quite clear that the best defence that our daughters have against the unhealthy, extreme pressures that they face to conform is their own self-esteem, and again the book is packed with practical thoughts for parents on how to help grow this: “Teach her to name her feelings”; >”Help her to find something she can seek solace in” – the advice comes tumbling out in clear, straightforward prose. Hard, sometimes shocking, anecdotes, such as the six year old girl who has recorded make-up tips on You Tube, are followed up by strong guidelines for parents – “Don’t allow TV into the bedroom“, “Turn off Bluetooth” – and a reminder to “Give her a healthy respect for the technology“.

Ms Carey’s premise is that we can and should do something about what we see around us, and our daughters’ well-being depends on it. Her conclusion is optimistic while not shying away from the reality of the situation we face: “In the years to come, I hope we will look back at this post-internet period in the same ways we once viewed children being sent down mines and up chimneys after the industrial revolution. Just as the unregulated labour practices of the Victorian era robbed those boys and girls of their childhoods, so is sexualisation and a free-for-all raunch culture robbing our daughters of theirs”.

If you have a daughter, read this book now – and act on it. Together we can make a difference in the lives of our children.

Don’t forget the Bailey Report …

The Bailey Report on the sexualisation and commercialisation of children’s lives was published just a month and a half ago, and was clear in stating that the world in which our children are living and growing up is over-sexualised, and we must do something about this. Early sexualisation has crept up on us, and the real and very present danger to our young people is that the images and associated expectations of behaviour have entered the mainstream of our society with us barely noticing. Sexualised images are both pervasive and prevalent, and we have to do something now. Part of this is about us giving our children the awareness and tools to be savvy in their understanding of the images around them, and part of it is about us as a society saying – firmly and unequivocally – that we need to be much more responsible in what we allow our children to see.

The Report was largely welcomed – in part, one must assume, because Reg Bailey did not recommend legislation, but instead a better, stronger code of practice – but we need now to keep a very close eye on what happens as a result. Just to remind us, his key recommendations included:

  • Providing parents with one single website to make it easier to complain about any programme, advert, product or service.
  • Putting age restrictions on music videos to prevent children buying sexually explicit videos and guide broadcasters over when to show them.
  • Covering up sexualised images on the front pages of magazines and newspapers so they are not in easy sight of children.
  • Making it easier for parents to block adult and age-restricted material from the internet by giving every customer a choice at the point of purchase over whether they want adult content on their home internet, laptops or smart phones.
  • Retailers offering age-appropriate clothes for children – the retail industry should sign up to the British Retail Consortium’s new guidelines which checks and challenges the design, buying, display and marketing of clothes, products and services for children.
  • Restricting outdoor adverts containing sexualised imagery where large numbers of children are likely to see them, for example near schools, nurseries and playgrounds.
  • Giving greater weight to the views of parents in the regulation of pre-watershed TV, rather than viewers as a whole, about what is suitable for children to watch.
  • Banning the employment of children under 16 as brand ambassadors and in peer-to-peer marketing, and improving parents’ awareness of advertising and marketing techniques aimed at children.

Retailers, other businesses and regulators have been given 18 months to come up with plans for how they should meet these recommendations, which have all been accepted by the Government in principle. Progress to my mind would be being able to open a newspaper or magazine without being confronted by Rhianna flaunting her rear; I am keeping an eye out for change … so should we all.