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Guide to good parenting

Tim Gill

The Archbishop of Canterbury is right: children need firmness, understanding and benign neglect from adults.

THE ARCHBISHOP of Canterbury challenged us, in a speech this week to look hard at the moral growth of our children, and to ask ourselves if we like what we see. His challenge is central to our moral landscape. And it is one that the secular liberal left finds it peculiarly difficult to respond to.

Shooting down the moral childcare prescriptions of others has long been a favourite field sport of progressives. But ask us, as Rowan Williams did, to describe "what a human adult might be like" and to clarify our role in guiding children to become such adults, and all you're likely to see from the Left is players departing the pitch.

For a textbook example of this, look no further than last month's report on antisocial behaviour from the British Parliament. The report criticised child welfare and health agencies in the United Kingdom for failing to engage in crime reduction work, painting a picture of difficult, damaged children being bounced between the dictatorial dad of the crime-prevention agencies and the mollycoddling mum of the social-welfare sector. We've all read enough parenting manuals and watched enough reality TV shows about dysfunctional families to know where that leads.

Dr. Williams was brave enough to offer some core elements of human morality. They included emotional intelligence, a concern for the consequences of our actions, respect for self and others and awareness of our fallibility and limitations.

A moment's reflection on our own childhood will reveal two crucial insights: that many of our most powerful and formative moral experiences happened out of sight of adults, and that much of what went on wasn't very pretty. One reason why children's bad behaviour is more troublesome to us than it used to be is because children's lives are more constrained and watched over by adults than at any time in recent history. This gives children a double whammy: it frustrates their natural urge to explore and push boundaries, and it exposes their resultant behaviour to the ever more judgmental gaze of adults. The combined forces of overanxious parents, overzealous institutions and hostile communities are leaving children deprived of the raw material they need to make sense of their growing moral and social engagement with the people and world around them.

But I'm not simply backing one stock liberal response to bad behaviour: "they're just being kids." There is a real problem. Solving it involves understanding more fully the journey that children need to go through if they are to become autonomous adults with self-respect and respect for the rights and entitlements of others. This means giving children more licence and freedom to make mistakes and learn from them. It also means confronting children with the consequences of their actions through proportionate sanctions and incentives that nurture a sense of human agency, rather than behaviouristic and materialistic systems of punishment and reward.

The Left's problem with the idea of intervening in the moral growth of children is partly a justified response to authoritarianism. It partly reflects a tendency to a moral relativism that tries to assume a position from which to declare there is no such thing as moral truth. But it also reflects some confused ideas about what childhood is. The process by which a child grows into his or her moral skin is a mysterious one. It needs from adults a subtle blend of firmness, understanding and benign neglect.

It needs an appreciation of both the extent and the limitations of children's competences and how these evolve through childhood. And as the archbishop reminds us, it needs clarity about the direction of travel of all our moral journeys. —

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004

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