A Campaign for Children
One of the great benefits of age is that one has seen so much, lived so much, that the multiplicity of lives and choices eventually makes our own legitimate and therefore possible: fear has been removed, if not obstacles.
My mother used to say I was a quiet little girl. I am sure I was, sitting nicely with a book, but I certainly do not feel quiet now. Having reached the age of seventy-five, I feel I have prevaricated long enough. It is a great relief to me that speaking and acting have now become unavoidable. Now, at a snail’s pace, I am able to conclude this story: the long-awaited but earth-shattering public acknowledgement of child abuse, sexual and otherwise, is a painful and useful prompt; it has ravaged me at each of its revelations, but now with a view to action which is the true healer. This book cannot be enough because it isn’t just my story: life needs not be so harsh if, quite simply, you have been valued and protected as a child. In this modern, ‘advanced’ society of ours, millions of children live the despair of abandonment and abuse, this is our own indictment.
It is undeniable that the society I have been living in for nearly fifty years has changed considerably since I left France and arrived in this country: seeing young fathers able to express easy affection to their small children has often moved me to tears, and young mothers, when they are not too absorbed by their iPads, seem also to find parenthood a joyful and rewarding experience. Both invest themselves to a large extent in their children’s lives and education. Their parents, my peers, have also improved somewhat: when they couldn’t touch you before, now they sometimes kiss you on one cheek, lightly.
Of course you cannot make loving your children compulsory, but it strikes me that you can help it along by making people more aware of their duties and responsibilities in new ways. I don’t mind being presumptuous by launching an idea: if popular, it could become a fad, a fashion; if people come to see its benefits it could become a custom although I would like some of it turned into law: there are already laws, customs and rituals that form part the commitment of a marriage ceremony, religious or civil; vows are made publicly in front of witnesses, we know and understand their legal and affective content: the couple have rights and duties to one another.
By law, the child’s birth has to be declared at the local Town Hall, the name entered of at least its mother, if the father is unknown. This public duty is executed easily, much too easily: it feels like an errand at the post office, there is no declaration, no intimation that a life-long commitment had been entered into, how profound it is, or that there is any joy in it. This, to my mind, is what needs changing.
All societies and religions of the world have ceremonies that seem to be universal to celebrate the major steps of our lives. Even as secular people nowadays we still celebrate marriage in many forms and mourn the passing of those dear or famous. But why isn’t there a ceremony to greet a new member of the human race? Now we just fill in a form in an office somewhere. Oh dear, what a greeting.
So here is what I believe we should be doing:
– Greeting babies, those born to us as well as those we adopt or foster, welcoming them publicly in a prepared ceremony at the Town Hall or our home, in front of family and friends representing society at large, or in a place of worship, promising them our love, protection and loyalty. It would be a beautiful heartfelt occasion; a public statement about our private joy.
– It would be called: THE PROMISE, the equivalent of marriage vows, but made to the child by its parents and in their own words (at any age but preferably soon after birth). It would be a public acknowledgement of our awareness and commitment to the duties of protection and nurture that we have to the new human being we have created and who is at the mercy of our goodwill and capabilities. It would be a covenant between us, a contract.
THE PROMISE should be a joyful affair, a celebration -an occasion for a party! And it would spread the knowledge of the true place of the child among us. Many will wonder: “Why should I need to make an official promise to care for my child when I know I can be a perfectly good parent without having to go through this palaver?” and they may well be right. This was and is a common reaction when discussing the comparative benefits of marriage and partnership and it is obvious that a public promise to be faithful or to remain together ‘till death do us part’ doesn’t necessarily stop lies, betrayal or simply failure.
Still, few if any who made these vows can have regretted making them at the time. On the contrary they would have been very keen to make them, so proud were they of their love that they would have happily shouted them from a mountain top; having witnesses to this proclamation often made that event more solemn and the commitment stronger. The significance of such moments of intensity lies in the fact that they anchor us deeply in ourselves and the unfolding of our lives. More than a step, they are a milestone of which we are aware at the time, and can never look back upon later without feelings of sadness, disappointment and failure if they haven’t held good: it was important, and we know that something of great value at the time hasn’t materialised, or lasted.
It is in this context that we must look at the place we make for children in our societies. Some religions may well celebrate and confirm the role the new child will play in their midst and we have a duty as citizens to declare the birth of the child and its parentage on a certificate, but there is, I believe, a need for an official ritual for the welcoming of the new baby or infant in our lives, with an acknowledgement of the nurturing role we shall have to play at least until this child is an adult; of our joy at its arrival and the recognition of our duty in its various forms:
CARE, PROTECTION, RESPECT, LOYALTY and of course LOVE (sadly we cannot legislate for LOVE, the necessary bonus).
This would have value as a public gesture, since there is value in example.
We cannot pretend to be uninformed of the often dire conditions in which many children are born and forced to grow up nowadays, when our claims to be enlightened in our knowledge and progressive in our ways could make us think that we are at last treating our children as we should.
It is enough to peruse the newspapers at random to get a broad and distressing view of all our failings:
– “ENGLISH CHILDREN ARE AMONG THE LEAST HAPPY.” (THE TIMES, 13/05/15)
– “BRITAIN HAS THE MOST CHILD DEATHS IN THE E.U.” (THE INDEPENDENT, 27/03/13)
– “BABIES BORN POOR IN BRITAIN WILL BE NO HEALTHIER THAN THOSE IN LIBERIA.” (THE TIMES, 2015.)
– “ONE IN THREE CHILDREN HAS SUFFERED VIOLENT ATTACK”. (THE TIMES, 01/01/15)
– “U.N. TELLS BRITAIN TO OUTLAW SMACKING CHILDREN AT HOME.” (THE TIMES, 24/07/15)
– “TRAFFICKING OF CHILDREN RISES FOR THE SECOND YEAR RUNNING” (THE OBSERVER, 01/09/13)
– “WE IMPRISON MORE CHILDREN IN THE UK THAN MOST OTHER COUNTRIES IN EUROPE. THIS IS IN BREACH OF THE U.N. CONVENTION ON THE RIGHTS OF THE CHILD” (Sir Al Aynsley-Green, Children’s Commissioner for England until 2015).
– “SEX ABUSE FILE SHUT UNTIL 2056” (THE SUNDAY TIMES, 29/03/15)
– “CHILD MENTAL HEALTH SERVICES FROZEN OR CUT BY THREE QUARTERS” (THE TIMES, 28/07/15)
-THOUSANDS OF CHILDREN ABUSED BY FAMILY (THE TIMES, 24/11/15)
–THOUSANDS OF DEPRESSED CHILDREN UNABLE TO GET HELP (THE TIMES 13/11/15
It is widely agreed that the State is currently failing in its duty to keep our children safe. Some of our very laws are far from making child protection a priority, and when they do, they are rarely implemented; we do not comply with all the terms of The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child; our place in international comparison leagues is often extremely poor: the reasons why should eventually be faced and addressed.
At a time in the social history of this country when we are overwhelmed with stories of lack of care in almost all institutions, widespread neglect and physical and sexual abuse, in spite of the role of well-meaning officials appointed by successive governments, there still remains a reluctance to recognise that children’s problems are everybody’s business and reflect on us all.
This is why I propose that a form of PROMISE could -should- be extended to all state and private bodies and organisations with a responsibility for the care of children. The formal contract of employment for anyone in charge of children should be extended to state departments including the police and government ministries, the breach of which would constitute an offence which should be seen as criminal complicity and sanctioned by the courts.
Continuing to hope, I feel that a non-political and permanent high-responsibility post should be established for a fully qualified public officer with experience and understanding of, and personal investment in, the welfare of children: it is not just a job.
We can all dream, but in some cases, thanks to social media and the goodwill of many people, results can be attained that can change attitudes and society. So who is going to do something about this IF NOT US, NOW? I shall certainly see what I can do myself, and would ask you to join me in this endeavour.