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Yesterday, I ran across an atrocious opinion piece in the New York City Journal, written by physician Theodore Dalrymple about a UNICEF report published last year on the well-being of children in industrialised nations. Britain came in twenty-first in the rankings (just behind the United States at twenty. (The Netherlands topped the list as the best country to be a child, followed by Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and Spain). With my own strong criticisms of attitudes toward children in the United States, and my more limited exposure to the educational system in the U.K., I am definitely willing to entertain the idea that British and American societies are toxic for children and their families. I haven’t read the UNICEF report in full, but the researchers looked at a broad spectrum of indicators, including

  • Material well-being
  • Family and peer relationships
  • Health and safety
  • Behaviour and risks
  • Own sense of well-being

The BBC report (linked above) and their related page of comments from British children about their lives contains a lot worth considering when it comes to assessing how children experience life in the modern world, even in countries that are materially rich and politically stable.

However, Mr Dalrymple does the UNICEF report a profound disservice by using it to support his socially conservative views about the British social welfare state and what he sees as “a culture of undiscriminating materialism, where the main freedom is freedom from legal, financial, ethical, or social consequences.” He relates a series of tabloid-style anecdotes about neglectful parenting and although he explicitly denies he is doing so, implies that women who have children with multiple partners and outside of marriage are unfit parents.

In my opinion, the most appalling argument appears about two-thirds of the way through the article, when he really starts to editorialize on report’s implications. He highlights the fact that many children do not experience regular family or group meal-times, and then writes:

Let me speculate briefly on the implications of these startling facts. They mean that children never learn, from a sense of social obligation, to eat when not hungry, or not to eat when they are. Appetite is all they need consult in deciding whether to eat—a purely egotistical outlook. Hence anything that interferes with the satisfaction of appetite will seem oppressive.

I invite you to consider for a minute, apart from whether you believe in the value of shared meals, the view of young people — and of people in general — that Dalrymple betrays here. “Children never learn . . . to eat when not hungry, or not to eat when they are.” What: we should be teaching children to ignore the messages their bodies give them about hunger? There are profound consequences in championing this concept of healthy socialization, when it comes to our experience of embodiment, for example. We should be instructing children to put conforming to social convention above attending to their own intuition? I was struck by how many children put the problem of bullying at the top of their list of worries when asked by the BBC what would make their lives better. Being taught to discount their own hungers (more broadly speaking, their own needs and desires) in the interest of social obligation would only exacerbate this problem.

Children deserve protected, nurturing space to be children — and I agree with Dalrymple that even in the most privileged of nations they don’t often have it, or have it for long enough. The solution, however, is not to cut them off from their own intuitive selves, but rather to give them the tools to care for themselves and for others around them in responsible ways. The fatal misperception in Mr Dalrymple’s essay is the belief that social obligation and self-care are mutually exclusive activities, when in fact I would argue they are mutually dependent — we thrive as individuals best when in a web of supportive relationships, and our relationships with fellow human beings are at their strongest when we know and attend to who we are as individuals — as well as attending to those around us. Unlike many material resources, emotional and social resources are not in limited supply, but endlessly renewable.

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