24 August 2009

The bean counters move into childcare

A US study, as reported by Frank Furedi, suggests that between 1981 and 1997:
there has been a noticeable increase in the amount of time that children spend on scheduled activities. ...Children's free time has declined, and free time is increasingly structured. [They] spend less time playing and more time 'going places'. This development ... reduces the amount of time family members spend just sitting around, talking and not doing anything in particular. In turn, parents spend more time organizing and driving children from one stimulating activity to the next. Paranoid Parenting (page 84)
Many of the world's problems, in my view, can be attributed to the difference between accountancy and human wellbeing. One is about ticking boxes and measuring that which can be measured. The other is about leaving people to find their own ways of fulfilling themselves. Even economics - the allocation of scarce resources to best meet prescribed ends - doesn't see quantification and management as ends in themselves. The ends in economics can be broad and, if well chosen, can correlate strongly with wellbeing. But so much of policy is no longer about wellbeing; it's about process and covering yourself; implementing procedures that have been tried, tested and (often) failed. It's about concentrating on those things that can be easily measured, while ignoring the broader concerns.

That approach worked when numbers correlated strongly with what we actually want to achieve. And for much of the world today many numbers still do: improvements in Gross Domestic Product, nutritional intake, basic literacy and numeracy, or something like the Human Development Index, for instance.

But that approach, which serves developing economies quite well, is failing us in so many areas. Rich countries still pursue economic growth as if it's a solution to all our problems. Major challenges, such as nuclear proliferation or climate change, go unmet. Surveillance powers combine maximum intrusion to minimum effect. Schooling is an opportunity for social engineering. The disconnect between politicians and the people they are supposed to represent grows wider and wider. And as Mr Furedi indicates, the same tendency to manage everything and achieve numerically impressive results at the expense of everything else, has moved into childcare or 'parenting' in western countries.

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