By Caroline Farrow
Being mother to five children has taught me one thing. Children are, by their very nature, quirky individuals who are yet to learn adult norms of behaviour and prone to indulge in practices which we might think odd.
Furthermore, despite all my children being raised in exactly the same environment, with access to identical books and toys, and with a consistent and joined up parental approach to discipline, their likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses and their personalities are all extremely different.
All of them have at times exhibited various challenging behaviours, which has differed from child to child. One would throw a tantrum when they didn’t get their own way, another would just disregard you and do what they wanted anyway and my youngest has recently discovered biting as a method of expressing displeasure!
I say this in the light of recent advice from NICE, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, who have urged both health and education professionals to ‘err on the side of curiosity’ and consider things such as intense outbursts, or excessive clinginess as potential signs of neglect or abuse.
While this might seem like a worthy idea in principle because we do know that such behaviours can sometimes be signals that there is something amiss with a child, it is also disturbing on a number of levels.
Firstly, one has to ask what NICE, which was set up to ensure consistent standards when it comes to the provision of healthcare across the NHS, is doing informing education professionals what they should be looking out for. The guidance, though seemingly benign in intent, seems like a massive case of mission creep from an organisation which likes to boast that though it is sponsored by the Department of Health, it also enjoys independence from the UK Government.
Schools are already required to have stringent safeguarding measures in place and are regularly inspected and monitored by the schools’ inspectorate, Ofsted, to ensure that they comply with best practice. British schoolchildren are subject to some of the most stringent procedures in the world, and there is not a headteacher in the country who does not take the issue extremely seriously.
What ought to bother us about these guidelines is that it is a form of behaviour policing, which automatically distrusts the parent and moves us further towards the idea so strongly propagated by the Scottish National Party, that every child is potentially at risk and therefore needs an allocated state guardian.
Teachers are already overburdened with admin tasks; their role is not to act as some kind of social worker, automatically assuming the worst of every parent.
Admittedly I am slightly touchy on the subject. My own four year-old has a very late August birthday and therefore had a bumpy start to her school career this year, mainly due to being almost an entire calendar year younger than many of her peers and lacking in some of the basic motor skills as well as not being as emotionally mature. We had days of utter meltdowns, tempers and tantrums, but the teachers were sympathetic and keen to take a collaborative approach in terms of what we could all do to improve her experience, including, if necessary, taking the decision to withdraw her and put her in the next cohort, when she would be more able to cope.
Had I thought that we might now be being viewed as potentially abusive or neglectful, or somehow blamed for our daughter’s behaviour, it would have put us both on the defensive, none of which would have helped the situation or my daughter herself.
There were many underlying reasons for the meltdowns, some of it was jealousy of her younger baby brother staying at home all day with mummy and some of it was that she was finding the expectations and structure of a Reception class demanding, so everyone did what they could to help her to settle and to realise that a tantrum wouldn’t help her. Now, midway through the spring term, she is absolutely thriving!
Other parents have reported a similar experience; starting school or going into a new class at the beginning of the academic year is not always easy for children who may sometimes push back. Sometimes children can just get over-tired, especially towards the end of term. All of them will, at various points push the boundaries.
Even the most established of children can sometimes experience the odd wobble on a school morning or go through a period of clinginess. What’s far more abnormal is expecting a child to exhibit robotic levels of submission and compliance. Abuse/neglect is far more complicated than a sensitive child who is prone to meltdowns and most teachers are already well-able to spot children who would appear to be vulnerable. What is concerning is that this appears symptomatic of how levels of trust and responsibility are being stripped away from parents, who after all, are the primary educators of children.
The other thing to bear in mind is that these two particular behaviours – clinginess and temper-tantrums – are very often signs of insecurity and sometimes attachment disorder, which doesn’t always stem from neglect or abuse. The policy of successive governments over the past 20 years has been to ratchet up the pressure on new mothers to get back into the workplace as soon as possible after the birth of their baby.
We now have a situation where increasing numbers of children have been put into childcare, of often varying quality, for long periods of time at an increasingly early age. Schools now provide wrap-around care, meaning that some children can be dropped off as early as 7am and then picked up at 6pm which is an incredibly long period of time for a small child.
That’s not said as a criticism of parents, many of them effectively have no other choice if they want to be able to provide for their families, but it does mean that a child is not spending as much quality time with their parents as they should. It doesn’t take an expert in child psychology to work out why perhaps some children are going to be more clingy or insecure than others.
One study from 2009 demonstrated that the more children in a reception class who had extensive histories of childcare, especially in childcare centres, such as nurseries, rather than with childminders, the more aggressive and disobedient were all of the children in that class. Even children with limited histories of childcare could end up exhibiting the aggressive and disobedient behaviours typified by those children who had been put in formal settings from a very young age, if the majority of the children had come from such a background.
Therefore, if we’re looking for culprits to blame when it comes to challenging or antisocial behaviour in children, while we shouldn’t ever rule out the possibility of abuse, perhaps we need to look closer to home and find better solutions for busy parents instead of pointing fingers of suspicion and blame.
Caroline Farrow is a spokesperson for Catholic Voices.
Picture: Children need to be encouraged to develop in their own way… even if they ‘prone to indulge in practices which we might think odd. Picture by Owen Humphreys PA Wire/PA Images.