Over the past two months, I have been following the harrowing trial concerning the parents of a little boy who was allegedly subjected to extreme levels of punishment from them both on account of his challenging behaviour. Arthur Labinjo-Hughes was living with his father and stepmother and had started to misbehave, possibly as a result of being separated from his mother, who had been sent to prison for the manslaughter of her partner. A thinking step had been introduced to discipline Arthur. However, rather than just having a couple of minutes for ‘time-out’, Arthur began to spend most of the day there; up to 14 hours. There were further allegations that his parents did not feed him or allow him water, made him sleep on the floor of the living room and they even force-fed him excessive amounts of salt. Following an incident on the 16th of June 2020, Arthur was admitted to hospital with severe injuries akin to someone being involved in a car accident and tragically, he died. The prosecution in the trial related that both Arthur’s father and step-mother participated in a campaign of cruelty towards the six year old which caused him significant harm and suffering. During the course of the trial, Arthur’s father has admitted that he struggled to know how to discipline his son correctly and did not know who to turn to.
A couple of months ago, a young twenty-three year old woman was sentenced to fifteen years in prison for killing her three-year-old daughter, Kylee-Jade Priest. The young mother had struggled to deal with her daughter’s behaviour and had beaten her in a fit of rage. When the details of the case were revealed, it transpired that the little girl’s mother was disinterested in caring for her daughter and preferred to post Tick-Tock videos rather than prioritise her child’s basic needs. Her daughter’s room was said to be devoid of any essential care items and toys and she was frequently left in filthy nappies and dirty clothing whilst her mother entertained her new boyfriend.
The popular Channel 4 television show, 24 Hours in Police Custody, recently featured another tragic case concerning a young couple, who, once again, had struggled with the care of their new-born baby. The mother had developed severe post-natal depression meaning that the father had to take on responsibility for the baby’s care. One day the father had somehow flipped and shaken the baby with the result that the baby was left with such serious injuries that he would require twenty-four hour care for the remainder of his life. The father was sentenced to three years in prison.
The media love to portray news stories in binary terms. People who are involved in such cases are portrayed as selfish and evil. Their actions are considered premeditated and unjustified. Hardly a week goes by that there is not a news story which relates the tragic story of a baby or a child, who has been killed by their parents. I do not personally know the parents involved in these cases and so I can not comment on their individual character traits and whether they are truly evil. I struggle to comprehend how anyone can harm their own child. Positive parenting is a far better strategy than using any form of violence to discipline a child. Using violence to discipline a child is just teaching them to meet violence with violence and that is not how the world works. Unfortunately, these tragic incidents seem to be happening so often now, that perhaps we need to take a step backwards and try and find a way to prevent them from happening in the first place. Furthermore, I believe that what these cases do show us is just how the education system fails to prepare young people for adult life. How many young people become parents knowing exactly what raising a child entails?
Having a baby and caring for it is far from easy. It is a 24 hour, 7 days a week occupation. I had my first child at thirty and I thought that I was prepared in many ways including emotionally and financially. I believed that I had experienced enough of life to be content to put someone else’s needs before my own. However, even I, someone who had been well-educated, was far from prepared for caring for a new-born. I thought that new-born babies were supposed to sleep all the time. I found caring for a baby completely overwhelming and there was so much that I did not really know, even though I had read book after book on pregnancy and raising children. I recall the first night my husband and I were out of hospital and alone with our baby. The baby cried for much of that night and the piercing sound was enough to push anyone to the edge. I found the initial weeks of developing a routine so consuming that it was not until six years later that I felt ready to have another child. Even when I believed I had everything sussed, something would occur to destroy the calm routine and make life difficult again, such as my child developing an illness or teething. One of my children developed a serious medical condition and fortunately I knew who to ask and where to go so that my family were well-supported. I often wonder how I would have coped if I had been unaware of how to ask for help.
I am sure that most parents try to open up discussions concerning life skills with their children. MTV has for some years shown a reality documentary entitled, Teen Mum. I often watch it with my daughter since it shows the warts and all reality of becoming a teenage mum and it also raises further issues relating to independent living and relationships. Whilst it is important that some education needs to be done at home, it should be backed up in school to ensure the message is delivered. Some educational authorities have attempted to explore training for life. In 2018, a school in Wales used infant simulators to teach their students how demanding babies are. Students were required to keep the robot with them at all times and be responsible for its care. They had to simulate feeding and sleeping. Participants in the trial soon learned how all-encompassing having a baby is and afterwards many stated that it had made them reconsider their beliefs about babies. Yet why was this a one-off and why aren’t more schools doing this? The main reason of course is down to funding.
When we look at the current National Curriculum, it is almost entirely based on academia. We expect students to be able to interpret the language of Shakespeare, we expect them to solve quadratic equations, but we rarely teach them how to write a curriculum vitae, an application for a job or how to manage their finances and bring up their children. Most of us have to learn from experience. Personal Social Health and Economic Education is a compulsory part of the curriculum, but the lessons vary according to each educational establishment and although the subject teaches some principles of adult life, the amount of time allocated to the subject does not afford a study of practical skills and is mainly focused on alcohol, drugs, and sex.
This lack of life education means that the majority of young people tend to base their parenting skills on their own childhoods and how they were treated. There is no formalised guidance concerning how to parent. The only instruction parents receive is usually a small amount given by midwives when a baby is born. However, much of this concerns how to manage a new-born and respond to their immediate needs regarding feeding and nappy changing, rather than how to deal with a child. In addition, the social care system is so overstretched that it is little wonder that many parents who urgently need advice and re-education are unable to access support.
Having worked in education for over thirty years now, I do feel that the curriculum offered in schools needs to be adapted to meet the needs of the next generation in particular regarding their future roles as parents. This would enable students to understand the benefits of positive parenting practices, such as using positive language, planned discipline, and family routines. It would also encourage nurturing behaviour and increase knowledge of child development. This idea is not something new. In fact, it has been put forward previously and as far back as 2009 when the Church of England Children’s Society initiated an inquiry into childhood by consulting over 35 000 people. The report stated that youngsters in the modern world often face more stress than any previous generation because of family breakdowns, exam worries and increasing pressure from external influences. They concluded that parenting should be taught as soon as possible, in order that parents are aware of not just the physical demands and sacrifices, but also the stresses and what is even more important, that parents are aware of how to set clear boundaries based on reason not anger.
Sadly, the government seem to be far too preoccupied with examinations and academic qualifications than in prioritising training for life. Admittedly, this idea may not prevent all babies and small children from dying due to neglect or ill-treatment, but I think that it will ensure that the majority of our young people understand parenting. Teaching parenting would also enable them to learn about empathy, critical thinking, responsibility, and other vital life skills that extend far beyond raising children. If we do manage to train and educate the next generation on how best to raise their children, perhaps we might start to see a decrease in these heart-breaking tragedies. Surely it has to be worth a try?
Elisabeth Basford has written the first modern biography of the Queen’s aunt,
Amazon are currently offering the kindle version of the book for £1.98 throughout December 2021.
You can buy it here