Our children are at breaking point – and it’s our fault

9 April 2022

9:00 AM

9 April 2022

9:00 AM

I think it’s time we stopped scaring the children. I think they’ve had enough. They’re at breaking point now, every generation more anxious than the last – and anxious younger, too. There’s a record number of British children diagnosed with anxiety, and a record wait – two years – for therapy, though I’m not at all sure the therapy as it is helps much.

The usual idea is that if the kids are troubled, it’s the world that’s to blame: smartphones, Instagram, the constant comparing; Trump, Putin, the existence of Tories; Covid, global warming. No wonder they have the heebie-jeebies. But I think in fact that we’re doing it to them. It’s us, the parents, carers, teachers in charge. We’re inadvertently torturing our kids.

Last week a consultant psychiatrist at the private mental health Nightingale Hospital, one Dr Chetna Kang, told the papers that she’s seeing children in London who are traumatised by the war with Russia. ‘Kids are scared there will be a world war and are frightened for their future,’ she said. ‘Very young kids just don’t understand why people fight like this.’ But why in God’s name is anyone telling the very young kids anything about the war?

Five-year-olds aren’t naturally interested in geopolitics. They have their own concerns: space, woodlice, puffy stickers, friends. If they’re worried about politics, it’s because the adults meant to care for them have made them worried – and to what end?

I have several friends who’ve felt the need to explain to their children exactly what a bad man Putin is – with one who’s gone the whole hog and told his seven-year-old all about the radius of blast zones and how much of London would be destroyed in the event of a nuclear war. ‘Well, she was asking about it,’ he says. OK, but was she asking before or after you bought her the ‘F*** Putin’ T-shirt?

It’s a measure of how keen we are to scare our children that the market responded almost instantly to the invasion of Ukraine with a great array of protest clothes for the under-tens. There are FCK PTN face masks for five-year-olds and babygros that say ‘I stand with Ukraine’, though the poor sods can’t actually stand at all. The bestselling T-shirt for primary school children right now shows the Black Lives Matter clenched fist raised in front of the Ukrainian flag. It’s beyond virtue signalling and into some form of pathology. My best guess is that this is self-soothing for middle-class parents who are themselves riddled with anxiety. If we pass on our politics to our progeny, it makes us calmer, as if we’ve done our bit to help the world.

Even worse than the political chat is the adult compulsion to tell children at every opportunity that the whole planet is doomed. Barely a lesson goes by in any subject, in any school in Britain, without talk of global warming, pollution or plastics. My six-year-old came home from a holiday music camp last week with a fun fact taught to him by an adult assistant: ‘Mum, did you know that more than 60 per cent of all the animals in the world have been wiped out in the past 50 years?’ As a rule, my son’s chipper and chatty, but he was quiet for a long while that evening. I could see in his eyes his picture of the future world – a grey dust bowl with the odd limping survivor mouse – and I felt full of murderous rage.

And what is the point of it? Even if your aim is to raise a battalion of tiny Thunbergs, surely scaring them half to death is a terrible way to go about it. If you want them to think the world worth protecting, isn’t it an idea to teach them to love it first – learn about polar bears without worrying that they’re homeless for want of sea ice, and marvel at whales without plastic bags in their blow holes. Why would any child want to grow up to save humanity if all they’re taught is about our irredeemable sins? We’re not raising eco-warriors so much as mass-producing basket cases. My own nightmare picture of a future world is of a progressive dictatorship, sponsored by Prozac.

You can’t keep children from the truth – that’s the next excuse. Whereas 20th–century kids could be protected from the news, generations Y and Z are inevitably exposed. They’re net natives, say parents; they’ll find out everything in the end. But so much of what we drip-feed into children isn’t the truth at all. Take that so-called fact about the Earth’s lost wildlife. It came from a report by the World Wildlife Fund, which actually states not that 60 per cent of all animals have died, but that 60 per cent of the world’s biodiversity has been lost. It isn’t good news. It’s horrible news. But it’s a far cry from the imminent destruction of all life on Earth, which it’s widely and blithely reported to be in classrooms across the country. It could be that teachers think a little healthy hysteria is no bad thing. More likely, they haven’t stopped to check the facts because there’s no incentive to. No modern head is going to tick a teacher off for being too panicked about the environment; no modern parent is going to complain about the creep of global warming studies across the curriculum.

But there’s something decidedly askew when kids in reception know about the great island of plastic trash in the Pacific and it feels almost like heresy to tell them about the upside of plastic. ‘We were both in plastic incubators as babies,’ I tell my son. ‘Then there’s plastic water pipes, coating for electric cables, wind turbine blades. Lightweight plastic solar panels might even save the world from global warming.’ But I say it quietly. And I never complained about the fake facts from music camp man.

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