In this issue:
Abstinence in the BMJ
Congratulations to Dr Trevor Stammers, a trustee and tireless promoter of our work, on the publication of his excellent article on the importance of abstinence education in the British Medical Journal (16 December, Vol 321, pp.1520-1521). Dr Stammers was head-to-head with Roger Ingham of the Centre for Sexual Health Research at the University of Southampton.
Click here to access the exchange of views and the ‘rapid responses’ from readers, which have been pouring in since publication: http://www.bmj.com/cgi/content/full/321/7275/1520
How much child abuse?
In November the NSPCC published a major study of the prevalence of child abuse and neglect, called Child Maltreatment in the United Kingdom. It was based on interviews with 2,869 young adults aged between 18 and 24, using a very detailed questionnaire to establish how many of them had been abused as children, in which ways and by whom.
The study is aimed at professionals and is not easy reading. The definitions of child abuse are complicated and endlessly refined, and gave rise to some alarming media reports of a very high incidence of abuse. The researchers’ own conclusions were that seven per cent of the sample had suffered serious physical abuse at the hands of parents and carers; six per cent suffered serious physical neglect at home; six per cent suffered emotional abuse; one per cent had been sexually abused by a parent and another three per cent by another relative, usually brothers or step-brothers.
However, the definition of abuse was very wide indeed in this study, and the chapter on sexual abuse illustrates this. As well as trying to establish the level of sexual abuse within the family, respondents were asked about sexual acts outside the family which had been against their wishes. Taking into account these responses, 11% of the sample had been sexually abused, but almost all cases involved boyfriends or girlfriends putting pressure on unwilling partners to engage in sexual activity, perhaps with a threat to “tell everyone” if they refuse. Whilst undesirable, this sort of behaviour has not usually been regarded as child abuse.
The section on bullying demonstrates the same tendency to inflate the figures. Respondents were asked, first if they had been bullied by other children; then, if they had been bullied by an adult. Seven out of ten of those who said yes to the second question claimed it had taken place at school, and most of the complaints referred to adults – presumably teachers – embarrassing them or not treating them fairly. There can scarcely be a pupil at any school in the country, from Eton to Grange Hill, who has not held a grudge against a teacher at some stage for this sort of behaviour, but is it child abuse?
One of the most striking statistics is the gap between the numbers of people who felt they had been abused and the numbers assessed as abused by the researchers. In one category (intermediate physical abuse) only seven per cent of those judged to have been abused considered that they had been.
The huge gap in the NSPCC research, which renders it almost valueless, is the refusal to take the family situation of the abused children into account. Many studies, including our own Broken Homes and Battered Children, have pinpointed broken and incomplete families as the most likely location for child abuse: the traditional family is comparatively very safe. This is not a point which the NSPCC is keen to take on board. “Family life is without question the single most important determinant of a happy childhood . . . although ‘families’ can . . . take many forms”, the authors claim, in the usual meaningless cop-out. “Much more can be learned from this study about . . . the circumstances in which children experience multiple abuse.” This seems doubtful, given the consistent refusal to deal with family breakdown as the most important risk indicator.
Making Sense of Censorship
In November I attended the Channel 4 conference Making Sense of Censorship at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London. It was designed to bring together interested parties to discuss the revised guidelines for film classification produced by the British Board of Film Censorship. (BBFC).
The background to the new guidelines, given in the paper produced by the chair of the BBFC, indicated that there had been wide ranging consultation by a variety of means before the guidelines were finally drawn up. At the conference there were a number of discussion groups examining the implications of the results from various aspects. I was in the group entitled, Protecting the Innocent. Both the conference presentations and the smaller discussion groups raised a number of issues:
- the range of views came from across the whole spectrum, from those who wished to see all forms of censorship removed to those who recognised the need to protect the young and the vulnerable. Consensus is impossible because there are no accepted common values.
- discussion revealed the significance of semantics. The word ‘adult’ is used to describe those given access to films which many would question as being a reflection of a truly ‘adult’ mentality, while the word ‘freedom’ is used to mean ‘to do as I like’ rather than ‘to become who I am’.
- the new guidelines have the problem of being all things to all people. This does mean that there will be very little, if any, constraints on films designed to be available only through sex shops (18R), but censors reviewing films in other categories will, now, have to take account of scenes likely to provoke imitative behaviour.
The whole area of film censorship is overshadowed by the implications of what is available on the Internet, much of which is more disturbing than anything seen on films. This material can be accessed by individuals in a private context and is much more difficult to control than what is in the public arena in the film world. Consider the number of young people who now have a TV and/or a computer with Internet access in their own bedroom!
One of the most interesting features of the conference was the opportunity to meet university professors engaged in research into the effects of violence and pornography. There does appear to be significant evidence to show the effect of pornography on the treatment of women and the effects of violence on vulnerable adolescent male offenders. This does not surprise us but it is important to know that evidence is emerging. I understand that the Home Office has asked for research into whether it is possible to identify the ‘vulnerable’ before the stage of adolescence is reached. It would seem wise to ‘watch this space’ as the guidelines apply to films and videos, many of which will appear on our television screens.
Members of the UK shadow cabinet, such as Michael Portillo and others who are quick to condemn the revived proposal for transferable personal tax allowances between spouses, should dust down the 1986 Green Paper The Reform of Personal Taxation, drafted by the then Chancellor, Nigel Lawson. Its key components were the abolition of the married couple’s allowance, the introduction of independent taxation for two-earner couples (giving them the benefit of two personal allowances plus two lower-rate tax bands) and the possibility to transfer an unused personal allowance to a non-earning spouse, thus conferring (almost) the same tax advantages upon single-earner families. The first two proposals were implemented, but the third, integral, component was ignored, thus leaving the single-earner married family at a distinct disadvantage.
The original married man’s allowance came into being at a time when it was unthinkable that even a childless wife should earn, not because the government wanted to encourage co-habitees to wed. Nigel Lawson’s proposal was worthy in that it recognised that, in the course of a marriage, at different times and for different reasons, one spouse may need to support the other.
Nigel Lawson gives a clear account in his memoirs of how his green paper failed to be implemented fully. The reason given by the Treasury was “lack of support” but, as the proposals would have produced no losers, taxpayers understandably did not write to complain. The only criticism came from some women’s groups, concerned that such a measure would “affect women’s privacy” and “would encourage women to stay at home”. Like so many other measures that would constitute no more than fairness to a sizeable section of the electorate, it appears to have foundered on the rock of feminist ignorance and prejudice.
Whether one or both parents work, whether they live together or not, as long as these allowances are claimed against one parental income, they would help support the children. Such reasoning used to apply in the UK and it still applies in other European countries. Parents of financially dependent children, be they babies, teenagers or university students, are earners who also support a spouse, bear far heavier burdens and make a greater contribution towards tomorrow’s world than those who, for whatever reason, do not. It takes a fair-minded, clear-sighted politician who is not given to moralising to implement such measures.
To school or not to school ?
We decided to remove our children from the State system of education for many reasons, some of which we only understood retrospectively. We had noticed a steady and rapid decline in their attitude to us as parents and in their general behaviour and socialisation from the time they entered State school. We found the reasons hard to fathom. The teachers were hard working dedicated individuals trying to implement constant changes to the curricula. The parents were caring, most were on hand to meet their children from school. The majority of mums either did not work, or worked hours when the children were at school. There were children from single parent families and from broken homes, but they were a minority, and did not appear disruptive. Every socio-economic group was represented in the school with a high proportion in the lower group. However, I do not believe these factors of themselves were major influences in the overall culture of the school.
Our eldest son who was then nearly nine kept telling us that whatever we thought or said was only of the same intrinsic value as his own knowledge on any given subject, despsite our wider experience of life. We were at a loss to understand from where he was getting these ideas. Within three weeks of starting at his new school, where he was a boarder, he told us that he had to respect those who are older than him, especially his parents, because they have been in this world longer and so know more! The change amazed us.
So what went wrong in the State school – why were we losing control? We became aware of how group discussions were run. A teacher would seek to get the children to give opinions and the children would defer to the teacher who would then tell them that his/her opinion only carried the same weight as that of each child present. Thus the teachers regarded themselves as facilitators rather than instructors. A bright child soon applied that philosophy to his parents and anyone in authority over him; the result was anarchy within the family; with younger siblings invariably copying.
We had noticed a steady decline in our children’s spelling abilities and a failure on the part of the school to correct mistakes. Mis-spelt words would be ignored with the result that he would continue to believe he could spell these words correctly. Faith relativism or comparative religion was taught, the children being led to understand that all faiths and systems of belief are equal. When I complained to the headteacher, I was told that I was out of date and that they were teaching attitudes and not moral absolutes.
During his second year at school our younger son became angry and hard to discipline. He was not being bullied by his classmates and there was no obvious reason for the decline in his behaviour. He was not progressing academically and was obviously unhappy and we were having to force him to go to school. The Head-teacher was co-operative and friendly. He stated that in his opinion no child should be in school before the age of eight because it impairs their ability to learn and their socialisation in the long term. We therefore decided to try home-schooling.
A year later I discovered that the teacher had read to the class from the book Charlie’s New Frock. Being only five, he was unable to express his distress at being told by his teacher, through the book that she read, that boys can turn into girls overnight. He was left in a state of constant fear that he would wake one morning to discover he had changed into a girl.
The results of home-schooling have been excellent. A child who loves maths, has improved his learning skills, is good at spelling, grammar and reading and is generally well integrated with his peer group. We have gained greater flexibility and a new awareness of our children and their potential, and our need to grow with them and to explore new ways of learning.
Parental leave. . .will it really help?
A symposium on this subject was hosted by the National Family & Parenting Institute (NFPI) on 23 October under the auspices of Parents’ Week. The meeting was addressed by Stephen Byers, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Bronwen Cohen, Chief Executive of Children in Scotland, and Richard Reeves, Director of Futures at the Industrial Society.
The question of whom and how parental leave would really help was not satisfactorily answered by any of the speakers, nor by any participant in the lengthy round-table discussions that ensued. Gender issues appeared to be at the heart of this symposium, with children’s needs, parental wishes and workplace requirements coming low on the agenda. Given the narrow remit of the symposium, the discussions amounted to little more than splitting hairs about the merits of maternity and paternity leave and the length of time allocated.
Some uncomfortable truths emerged, but the speakers and most of the participants appeared to be blind to these, even when I pointed out to them:
- The present British Government has effectively washed its hands of family policy as it has been traditionally understood and continues to be understood in other EU countries, with the exception of Sweden. Such policy consists in creating a framework that ensures, through fiscal measures, that parents with dependent children do not lose out vis à vis those without this costly and time-consuming responsibility.
- It appears that responsibility, which would normally rest with the Treasury, has inexpensively and conveniently been passed to the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI).
- The DTI has now been put in the uncomfortable position of having to urge employers (who already act as unpaid tax collectors and benefit administrators) to make allowances for employees whose family responsibilities are not compatible with their duties in the workplace.
The representatives from child welfare organisations who were present at this and so many other family policy meetings tend to equate child welfare with ever greater parental rights at work. Gender issues are always near the surface and these women, supported by the Women’s Unit, will be quick to sabotage and ridicule any suggestion of fair and neutral fiscal support for all families. However, NFPI briefing on parental leave does emphasise the importance of the child being allowed to develop at a natural pace. It even quotes American research that refers to the importance of secure attachments during a child’s early years. The NFPI also calls for “an increase in financial support for parents”.
Prof Jerome Lejeune
Members who recall the inspiring address which the late Professor Jerome Lejeune gave to our AGM in 1989 (Family Bulletin No 58) will be interested to know that his daughter has written a biography of her father entitled Life is a Blessing. It is due to be published by Ignatius Press in March, ISBN 0-89870-812-5.
Marriage and Family Life in the 21st century by Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, DBE published by the Mothers’ Union
This pamphlet represents the text of a talk given to the Mothers’ Union by a judge who is President of the Family Division of the High Court. Though some good things are said about marriage, the general tone can be seen in the thoughts that make up the conclusion:
- Marriage, whether within or without the Christian ethos, is a crucial stabilising force in society and the family unit within marriage requires all the support we can give it.
- Children are our future and are increasingly born to and/or live with those outside the status of marriage.
- All of us, perhaps particularly older people like myself, have to be flexible and to recognise that the traditional concepts of the family no longer encompass the whole range of family life.
So there we have it: we have to become more flexible. All must be accepted. Anything is a family. About trans-sexuals she says: “We cannot shut our eyes to the fact that, while together, such couples create their own family”. Same-sex relationships? “I suspect that within a comparatively short time Parliament will have to grapple with the concepts of same sex marriage, divorce and post-divorce finance”.
We are given no hope that the present disastrous trends in society can or should be resisted, let alone reversed. The pamphlet is not even a great deal of use at looking at statistics since few are given. There is an outline of some aspects of the law as it currently applies to families, but it is neither comprehensive nor deep. Those members who are also members of the Mothers’ Union might enquire why this pamphlet was published and, more importantly, make the point that the Mothers’ Union should invite lecturers who are committed to fighting destructive trends in society, not merely describing them.
Devil’s Advocate by John Humphrys, Arrow, ISBN 0-09-927965-7, £7.99
John Humphrys will be well known to most of us as television personality and broadcaster, especially on the Today programme. As its title suggests, this book presents a series of views that go against the usually received wisdom of what have been called ‘the chattering classes’. Humphrys is nobody’s fool and nobody’s pawn. So much of what we read is written by those who have a vested interest. We remember John Betjeman’s lines in his poem, The Village Inn:
So spake the brewer’s P R O ,
A man who really ought to know,
For he is paid for saying so.
Humphrys is his own man and always splendidly politically incorrect.
Members of FYC may not agree with all his views but they will take heart from, and notice of, what he says about such topics as the way that society is going, politics and, especially, the media. He is especially good on television where he describes the replacement of educational and journalistic values by entertainment values. He explains: “As a result of the ratings war, virtually all soaps have sensationalised their storylines by concentrating more and more on the seamier side of life, on anything to do with sex, infidelity, domestic violence, abduction, aggression of all sorts, and the more bizarre corners of human behaviour”.
Humphrys shows that many people in the media are worried by what is happening – how Sally Whitaker who played in Coronation Street for twelve years decided to stop her own young daughter from watching the programme and how it was a television dramatist, Andrea Newman, who said of the television bosses: ‘These people are so frightened of viewers switching off that if you don’t open with two people in bed, they think no one will come back after the break’. Humphrys is under no illusion that television does not deprave and corrupt. He concludes that the present trends will continue and “probably speed up the process of coarsening our view of life and the world in which we live”.
The book is written in a readable style and contains humour on most pages. It is a good read and it would be a good book to buy or to order from your local library so that others can benefit with you from its shrewd insights into modern society.