Childhood, Well-Being and a Therapeutic Ethos

March 11, 2010

When considering the winners and losers of modernity it is tempting to see children as most definitely in the former camp. They not only enjoy unprecedented levels of legal protection but have reams of government policy dedicated, at least nominally, to improving their situation. There is now a greater level of resources dedicated to their educational outcomes than Engels (who observed the sacrificing of children's time and, occasionally, their lives, to "the greed of an unfeeling bourgeoisie") could ever have believed likely.

Despite this, there are many doubters about the state of modern childhood, worried about it being poisoned by consumerism and rampant individuality, ground down by educational testing and a weakening of family structures, and even disappearing altogether into a cross-generational "kidult" culture.

This collection of articles brings together various perspectives on the state of modern childhood and what can be done to improve it. It bridges the popular and the academic, the analytical and the campaigning, and will be of interest to those studying or working with young children in particular, whether from an educational or therapeutic background. Its origins lie in two open letters organised by Richard House, of Roehampton University, and Sue Palmer, author of the popular book Toxic Childhood: How the Modern World is Damaging Our Children and What We Can Do About It (2006), on the state of childhood and the value of play; the latter followed up by an international conference, papers from which form the basis of part of this collection.

The first section of the book sets the context, and here Palmer contributes a chapter on the experience of writing Toxic Childhood and the attention it garnered. Bob Reitemeier, chief executive of the Children's Society, reports on its "Good Childhood Inquiry", highlighting children's concerns, particularly with regard to their education and relationships, and Christopher Clouder, chairman of the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship, makes the case for foregrounding such social and relationship concerns in the design of education. The work of Rudolf Steiner is drawn on later by House's chapter grounding such educational practice in the work of D.W. Winnicott and by Eugene Schwartz, on using play in a kindergarten.

Del Loewenthal lays out one of the wider aims of both the book and the campaigning represented in it, namely, furthering a debate about how society can develop services to engender wellbeing.

Therapeutic practice that serves to de-centre the individual can be a paradigm, he argues, for developing practice and policy that seek to foreground the relational. The centrality of the relational in devising solutions at both micro and macro level is illustrated nicely in the next section, covering specific psychological concerns. Here Ricky Emanuel gives an example of how a therapeutic relationship can help in dealing with the extreme "toxicity" of some childhoods, Sue Gerhardt links early childhood experiences to brain development and later-life experiences, and Sami Timimi ponders how neoliberalism's promotion of greed may be reflected in mental health problems grounded in a narcissistic failure to empathise.

A strength of the book is its broad approach, broad enough, for example, to include in the third section, on the therapeutic ethos, a chapter from Kathryn Ecclestone decrying the use of therapeutic language in education as part of a deficit model of children that serves to diminish their powers of resilience, and then follow it with one from Andrew Samuels on the lessons for educational practice to be gained from the major therapeutic traditions. In the final section, on play and playfulness, Biddy Youell describes individuals' capacity for play as a bellwether for their mental health, and is followed by Elizabeth Wood who, while discussing play as both therapeutic and pedagogical practice, explores how it can also be cruel and damaging.

There are points when such pluralism gives rise to a blurring of focus and one doesn't have to be a dyed-in-the-wool positivist to be frustrated at the occasional use of quantitative research to insist on the primacy of the immeasurable, but, overall, the volume achieves a stimulating synthesis of issues from practice and academia.

The editors conclude with a call for a new way of thinking from educationalists and therapists to subvert the current bureaucratic culture that seeks to measure every aspect of personal development from cradle to grave for the goal of economic efficiency. If this is not heeded we can at least remember that, as Oliver James notes towards the end of the book, in a discussion on play and the human spirit, "our will to play is always greater than the desire to exploit it".

Childhood, Well-Being and a Therapeutic Ethos

Edited by Richard House and Del Loewenthal. Karnac Books, 4pp, £19.99. ISBN 9781855756335. Published 20 November 2009

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