The trends that isolate children, re-create them as vulnerable, accident prone and in need of protection, and simultaneously exploit their market potential, are widespread, an inevitable off-shoot of contemporary consumerist societies. But these
trends can nevertheless be questioned and challenged. Certain countries have always been more pro-natalist and more proactive in favour of children. One key indicator of societal attitudes towards children is toleration of child poverty. If children live in poverty, one can either blame the parents for being so unwise as to reproduce without being able to guarantee financial security for their children, and thus dooming their children to suffer poverty in their turn; or else one can take the view that all children are entitled to an equal chance, whatever their parents’ circumstances, and income maintenance, and other measures to combat poverty should be redistributive and targeted towards children. In most European countries child poverty rates are very low, typically 5-10 per cent. In the UK they are at least 30 per cent. Despite Government claims to the contrary they show little sign of falling. UNICEF has criticized the UK (and the USA which is still worse) for their position about child poverty.32
Another indicator is the level of early education and childcare services, and the extent to which they are publicly provided. How early should the state accept responsibility towards young children or intervene as little as possible? In France, publicly provided childcare services for working parents were first introduced in 1848. In the UK, in 2002, there is still no commitment to public childcare provision. Generally the UK compares poorly with other European countries.33
There are many other ways in which Government, locally and nationally, could be more proactive towards children, and take children’s views into account. There have been some recent changes in the UK, but they fall a long way short of what is currently on offer in other countries. In France, for example, most children take part in ‘Sejours des Vacances’, residential holiday playschemes that enable them to experience environments different from the ones they normally live in; they swop between urban, rural and seaside settings.
Norway has a Children’s Fund, to which any child or group of children aged between 5 and 16 may apply directly, and without adult intervention, for funding of projects. An evaluation of the funding suggested that whilst children applied for a wide variety of projects, the majority of bids were from children who wanted to build their own huts or cabins! Both the Children’s Fund, and the uses to which it appears to be put are beyond our experience in the UK.
In design-conscious Italy, it is assumed that children are as discerning aesthetically as adults. Leila Gandini, writing about the famous group of nurseries in Reggio Emilia comments that:
There is attention to detail everywhere – in the colour of the walls, the shape of the furniture, the arrangement of simple objects on shelves and tables…it conveys the message that this is a place where adults have thought about the quality and instructive power of space.34
In Holland and Denmark most children are able to cycle to school because of carefully regulated offroad cycling paths, which offer complete protection from car traffic.
In Sweden, advertising to children is carefully controlled. Children’s TV programmes are advertisement free and advertisers are limited in the way in which they can target children – restrictions which have been suggested as a useful model by the EU.