Has the societal obsession with ‘choice’ now infiltrated the zone of children’s rights and, if so, is it leaving parenting in peril? I pose this question because I am increasingly sure that many parents are feeling feeble and impotent as they fail to apply their own beliefs and preferences to their children’s lives. They are, instead, being battered on the head by the hammer of ‘choice’. There has been, I believe, a paradigm shift here; the more and more parents who give in to this turning tide, the more and more difficult it is for others to swim against it.
I put the word ‘choice’ in parentheses because it has a particular meaning within the managerial parameters of current public policy. The individual has the right to hold all public bodies to account and to use the market to choose which producer delivers ‘best value’ or ‘economic well-being’ to their own lives. If this is now the consensus position for all adult individuals, then children (the individuals) in relation to their parents (the accountable body) are also increasingly adopting it.
In short, your children have a right to choose in just about every aspect of their lives and from an increasingly young age. Mistakenly, the right to choose is mixed up with the myriad of child protection laws and protocols. It is as if we can’t possibly upset a child any more by using our parental veto when making choices about their lives. This is nonsense. There is no link between them, nor should there be.
Here are a few examples of how children’s choice is taken to its extremes.
- Talking to a variety of parents, pondering their child’s next school this autumn, I was astounded by how many who had thought School A was the best secondary school for their child but that they had changed to School B because their child had ‘preferred it’. Often this was on the basis of material gain – a free laptop, a free sports kit, Parents clearly didn’t want to infract their child’s right to choose, despite their reservations. How well 10-year olds can make a reasoned choice is not clear.
- A more laughable example came from a friend who told me one of the family had cancelled their holiday to southern Spain because the teenage boy had refused to go. The villa had committed the cardinal sin of not having its own wi-fi. The whole family plans changed because of the child’s ‘choice’. Parents were unwilling to accept the consequence of imposing their own choice upon their children – a grumpy teenager for two weeks. (Incidentally, my experience of teenagers is that they’re grumpy all the time, whether they’re offered choice or not.)
- A school took their Year 6 pupils on a residential holiday full of outdoor activities in the water, in the hills and in the trees. Understandably, there was lots of listening to safety information and instructions regarding equipment etc. This particular group of children became rather bored with this (that’s another thing – children are not allowed to be bored anymore) and began to mess around, leading to an admonishment from the instructor. One child replied, ‘I am paying a lot of money for this. You can’t tell me what to do.’
- Players at my sons’ sports clubs are forever changing teams and clubs because of one reason or another, not because the parents believe it is right, but because they believe their child has the right to choose. At school, I insist that pupils stick to a club or commitment that they have made (and not always successfully I might add).
Now as a parent, I am caught up in this and, my God, it’s hard. I’m one of those who’s swimming against the tide and not doing an especially good job of it. I veto my children’s choices when maybe I should have been a little bit more understanding, and at other times I give in when I should have been tougher.
That is why schools must assist parents from an early age to discuss and explore parameters. They must help parents develop the confidence to stick to a position and be consistent. Children who are able to ‘over-choose’ will pay the price in later life.
There is a wonderful irony here. Successive governments, buying into the ‘market forces’ approach to education policy, have trumpeted the ‘choice’ agenda in order to make UK Youth PLC part of this new innovative generation, primed to smash various trade deals across the world and make us all rich.
Yet the pandering to their choices from a ridiculously early age makes them no more battle-hardened for the challenges ahead than a limping deer staring into the face of a particularly hungry lion.