The Appearance Of Infantile School Children
'Are we to blame for impolite children? ' The Sunday Mail 7/9/2003

Five-year-olds are starting school without social skills, unable to talk properly, to fasten buttons, to sit still or even to hold a knife and fork.

But is it entirely their parents' fault? Or is there a wider dimension to this problem?

British schools boss David Bell says too many parents are failing to impose proper discipline at home, failing to engage their children in conversation, failing to share meals with them and failing to do much more than plonk them in front of a television set. So primary schools are faced with a flood of unsocialised children.

Schools cannot do everything for a child, and some pupils become incorrigible from an early age because there is no back-up for discipline or manners in the home. But, I ask again, is it entirely fair to blame the parents?

Certainly parents are the first influence on a child, but the parents themselves do not exist in a social vacuum. They are part of, and reflect, the values and norms of any society.

Even good parents lament the difficulties they face in struggling against social norms and peer pressures as they try to raise good children.

They feel besieged by the seeming glorification of bad manners and selfish conduct which are so common today.

Few of us would advocate a return to an obsequious sense of "knowing your place" but it is a fact that the civilising processes transmitted to children in the past involved learning the "social skills" of discipline, respect, self-control, not interrupting other people when they are speaking and not speaking in a loud, gross or foul-mouthed way.

The culture today teaches the opposite: how to be aggressive, how to manifest your anger, how to show off, how to put yourself first —in simple terms, it teaches our children how to be coarse.

A new proletarianisation has displaced aspirations to gentility or good manners. I observe many examples of this daily.

There are parents who shriek obscenities in the street, and shout at their children without restraint.

If you dare to reprimand a child on a train for putting their filthy shoes on the seats you would get an earful, and a lot of knowing threats about "rights".

We have to realise that too many people in our society simply don't know how to behave.

David Bell particularly notes that many children have no idea how to use a knife, fork or spoon, have never sat at a communal table, and cannot communicate because they have no verbal skills.

The revolution in domestic technology and family life must have played a big part in this. By the 1990s, more than half of meals were eaten in front of the TV.

Some radical sociologists welcomed the decline of family meals because they "reinforced patriarchal authority". Teenagers might be quizzed as to where they had been the night before and what they were generally up to. This was criticised as "oppressive" — but it was also responsible parenting.

When parents presided over the meal table, when they told children to take their elbows off the table, this was part of the process of socialisation. It involved the parent interacting with the child, even where the child challenged the parental ruling ("Why should I?") And importantly, it made parents reflect on their responsibilities to set an example by keeping up their standards in front of the children.

Fast-forward to the 21st century and you have a whole new cultural menu. Family life is much more fragmented, with a huge increase in divorce and people living alone.

Parents are also bullied and intimidated by all sorts of new laws, such as prohibitions against smacking children, which carry the message that the state, not the family, is the prime authority.

On TV, now the most formative social influence, shouting, bad language, casual violence, vulgarity, "in-your-face" sex and aggressive behaviour are the norm.

If young children are learning their social standards from Big Brother, small wonder they arrive at school disrupted and dishevelled.

Yes, we should spread the blame a little wider than the parents themselves, many of whom are doing their best but feeling the pressure.

But good parents are not supported, and indifferent parents are not shown that children don't bring themselves up.

If we want children to have better social skills and the ability to interact in a civilised way, we have to be brave enough to re-affirm some of the values that promote social betterment.