A Good Childhood is a report for the Children's Society. I'd never heard of it, but my husband got it for work. I think he was in part inspired to buy it by the terrible UN report back in around 2006, which put the UK at the bottom of the heap for good places to raise kids.
The report's been put together by Richard Layard and Judy Dunn, although they are really only the final adjusters, synthesizing an absolutely huge amount of research, that has been done on the state of childhood and all that contributes to it (ie the whole of British society, saturated in consumerist capitalist ideology).
Richard Layard is the economist who wrote Happiness, and the report is written in a delightful avuncular style, which just makes my heart melt. It's very tough: we hear about the dreadful state of the UK education system, about mental ill-health in children and young people, and the terrible impact of consumerism, substance abuse, violent games, and overworked parents. Yet because the report approaches this toxic state of affairs through language which implies that we could all reach an ideal if we changed the way we do things just slightly, the book is immensely empowering to read.
It is so painfully rare to read a diagnosis of damage and trouble which isn't written in a sensational style that feeds on what it is diagnosing. Many people's everyday comments to each other take this form, unaware that they are not 'outing' problems, but participating in them and perpetuating them. I think we can all remember moments when we opened up to a friend, and found ourselves on the receiving end of a debilitating confirmation of our worst fears. Competitive fearfulness is itself a reflection of a cripplingly competitive culture.
I think that Layard is absolutely right when he pinpoints competition as the thing that could be killing childhood. He finds it everywhere, in consumerist social attitudes, in over-testing, and in the discrimination which both engenders mental health problems, but then turns those problems into labels and traps people still further. Perhaps it is true that we all read books which justify our choices and views, but I have rarely read a book in which I recognized my dilemma and the sources of its solution so clearly.
This is a book that can't really address the problem of whether or not women should work once they have children, but it does take up the point that continuity of care, and avoidance of materialism for its own sake, are general goods. And it recognizes that people must be allowed to find fulfillment for themselves. Failing to avoid avoidable damage is what causes problems for children: if a happy mother is a working mother, then that's good for the children, whether she's physically there at the end of the day or not.
It never occurred to me that a report for the Children's Society could be unputdownable. There is an overt strand of Christian rhetoric which threatens ever so slightly to tip the book over into the conservative camp. But it is hard to assert that Christian values are intrinsically bad ones. Secular society still needs the same — or very similar — values, with or without the faith part. This book should be handed out with the free nappies in hospitals, and every teacher in the land should be given a copy. Certainly every Government minister should be playing it on her ipod.