The retreat from goodness

One of the few things that has been more depressing than the recent UNICEF report arguing that British children had the lowest well-being in the Western world ( was some of the responses on the internet and in the media to these results. The nadir was reached by Barbara Ellen in the Observer (,,2015633,00.html). Her argument: British children aren’t unhappy and engaging in self-destructive behaviour, they’re just ‘arsey’.

According to Ellen, the British teenagers who answered surveys were just winding up the interviewers, when they talked about getting drunk, feeling their health was poor, being unhappy at school and engaging in underage sex. And this behaviour, is in her view:

much less creepy and disturbing than the thought of all those sucky-up kids from Holland and Sweden (henceforth known as the apple-polishing nations) chirruping away about how much they respect their elders.

The same attitude is visible in many other comments I’ve seen elsewhere. Why is British childhood seen as bad for having large amounts of underage sex, drinking and drug-taking? Surely those are the good things in being a teenager? If British children are saying other children are unfriendly, isn’t that only being honest?

What is staggering about these views is firstly how ingrained a view of childhood and adolescence as naturally unhappy and self-destructive has become to British people, when the statistics for other countries show this is not inevitable. And more than this it also shows the vile reversal of values that seems to have swept over this country. To be a teenager or adult who does not break the rules, who behaves responsibly, respectably, morally, is the worst possible crime in some circles. It is to be a goody-goody, boring, conformist, an abnormal freak. It is the same attitude visible in some of the reactions to the news that David Cameron used cannabis at school. Hasn’t everybody tried drugs (other than a few sad cases?)

This isn’t about liberalism versus traditional values or religion versus secularism. The overall results of the study show religious countries doing both relatively well (Spain/Italy) and poorly (US), as well as largely secular countries doing well (Netherlands, Scandinavia) and poorly (UK). Countries with liberal traditions can do very well: Scandinavia, for example, shows that countries with relatively high levels of single parents and step-parents can still have happy children. The Netherlands combines low rates of abortion with low rates of teenage pregnancy and only average rates of underage sex.

Liberalism, then, need not destroy morality: it can create a new, more inclusive morality of compassion and consideration for all. In Britain, however, it does not seem to have done so. Instead rebelliousness seems to have become the norm. It may be normal for many teenagers to be rebel against their parents. But it is not normal or healthy for parents to still be seeing themselves as rebels, to refuse to become mature, to applaud harmful behaviour in their own children and others. I am worried for my daughter’s future sometimes. How I can bring her up to have standards, without her being picked on for having them, to enjoy studying without being despised and bullied for this? I do not want to move to the Netherlands, but nor do I enjoy living in a society which celebrates the ‘arsey’ and despises the well-behaved.


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