Child development in the UK and national wellbeing

On 11th October 2012, Rabbi Sacks participated in a debate in the House of Lords on child development and national wellbeing.

My Lords, I thank the Noble Lord, the right reverend prelate the Bishop of Chester, for initiating this important and timely debate. Timely because we have heard much talk in recent weeks about the phrase “one nation.”

My Lords, in the space of half a century we have become two nations, divided into those who as children had, and those who have not had, the gift of growing up in stable, loving association with the two parents who brought them into being.

Those who have not will, according to copious research, be disadvantaged in many ways. On average they will do less well at school. They will stand less chance of attending university. They will be less likely to find and keep a job. They will be less well off. They will be less likely to form stable relationships of their own. They will be more prone to depression and its syndromes. They may even be less healthy. And all this through no fault of their own but through the circumstances of their early childhood.

The result is a deepening and dangerous social divide between two cultures, in one of which children are growing up without the support and presence of their natural fathers, and often without constructive male role models. They are at risk of being robbed of the habits of the heart – the security and self confidence, the discipline and restraint – that they will need safely to negotiate the challenges of an ever changing world. Too many of our children are being robbed of hope.

The depth of this divide has been hidden from public attention by a perfectly honourable desire not to sound judgmental; not to condemn any freely chosen way of life; and not to add further to the immense burdens of being a single parent. My Lords, I respect those scruples. But we have seen in recent weeks how an equally honourable wish not to offend sensitivities allowed young girls in Rochdale to be ruthlessly exploited. There is a price to be paid for silence, and it is usually children who pay that price.

My Lords, we cannot change the past. But we can change the future. Many years ago in the course of making a television documentary on the state of families in Britain, I discovered the work of a speech therapist who was teaching five-year-old children and their parents a set of skills – listening, problem-solving, praising, negotiating and contract-making. They were intended to help cure the children’s stammers, but one after the other, the parents were telling me that they helped save their marriages.

I suddenly realised that there are easily teachable skills that can transform the ability of young people to make and sustain relationships and I wonder why we have not explored the possibility of introducing them into the curriculum. They are not cognitive. They are not judgmental. They are learned by playing games. They are transformative and they are fun.

My Lords, we as a society have a duty to see that our children are given the best chance of success we can give them, and that means doing all we can, especially through the educational system, to train children from the earliest possible age to develop the skills and sensibilities that will help them become loving, caring and responsible parents. I would urge the government to consider new and creative ways to do just this.