Saturday, 30 July 2011

What did you call me? I spend quite a bit of time every day talking gibberish to a baby. I do this because I'm aware that children in care have a high likelihood of delayed development and consequent disadvantage; and because early gains in speech and language can be of critical importance in later development. I'm helping to care for a baby who could easily get left behind if he doesn't get plenty of face-to-face communication right now. This kind of effort to compensate for disadvantage is routine in foster care. But through a compelling piece on R4's Today programme this morning we learn that a noticeable proportion of children are starting school without knowing their own names, or in some cases not knowing that they have a name. How excluded can you get? Once I ponder the implications of that in terms of sense of identity - let alone the development of communication skills - I find it scary, and feel ashamed of our society. One example given in the article referred to a parent who simply didn't know that you can talk to a child before they can talk back to you: 'he don't talk to me, so I don't talk to him'. Some attempt was made lamely to blame contemporary media for this state of affairs. But Jean Gross, who has the great job title of 'the government's communication champion for children,' referred to young parents lacking contact with other adults of different generations. And I think it might be worth asking about the sometimes-missing contribution of the extended family, intergenerational relations at neighbourhood level, and the impact of poor housing design. Where someone's immediate environment seriously discourages them from stepping out with their baby or toddler, and diminishes the likelihood of conversational encounters with others in the nieghbourhood if they do so, the reduction to silence and hence namelessness may be understandable. Neighbourhood natter about parenting may not always be packed with wisdom, but at least there's a good chance that names will be exchanged. Blaming the media and blaming the parents is way too easy. We need also to think about how parenthood is affected by the social and environmental character of our neighbourhoods, and what can be done about that. It also strikes me that we bring a legitimate urgency to our calls for people to check on their elderly neighbours, especially in winter: surely a similar urgency should apply to connecting with parents of children who are in the fragile early spring of life.

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