I suspect lots of people might think I'm crazy to commit the Save Childhood Movement to an event as big as the 2017 International Festival of Childhood. Over four days we are bringing together an extraordinary gathering of speakers to talk about what's going on in the lives of young children and how we can create a more caring and meaningful world. We have committed to two major venues, with all the staging and promotional costs of putting on a top-notch event. Not only that but we are working with a wonderful creative partner in Bath who is overseeing an extravaganza of playful external events and activities - all of which will be free. So we will have what we hope will be an internationally important conference embedded within a city-wide celebration of childhood.
The movement is not a large organisation, supported by major sponsors or members of the national media. Instead it's a young and totally voluntary organisation that, other than two small national lottery grants that it was awarded for the development of National Children's Day UK, has been pretty much self-funded. In the three years since its launch people have freely given what has amounted to thousands of hours of voluntary time and expertise, but we still rely on a tiny core team. Any funds that we raise this year will go to ensuring that we can grow our team and its activities in a solid and sustainable way.
Each topic that we are covering in the festival subsequently deserves a conference of its own and, if it is successful, this is something that we plan to help happen. We also want to initiate a series of national conversations about the kind of values we really want to see in society. My own feeling is that big problems demand big solutions and one of the issues with current political leadership is that it focuses only on the short-term, rather than inspiring people to come together to re-write the rules and shape a better and more compassionate future. We have to start somewhere and thinking small simply isn't going to hack it.
This morning I read Sian Griffiths' Sunday Times review of Michele Hutchison and Rina Mae Acosta's book 'The Happiest Kids in the World'. The book documents Michele's experience of moving from the UK to bring up her children in Amsterdam and the huge gulf between the pressurised, competitive way she was brought up and the Dutch parenting style. "In Holland family life is fiercely valued. Instead of a culture of long office hours, it is a matter of national pride to leave work early to spend time with your children...There is no exam pressure for under tens or homework in primary schools. Instead the importance of having friends and building social skills is emaphasized."
"Childhood over here consists of freedom, plenty of play and little academic stress...In contrast we see British parents feeling constantly challenged and unsettled by their own unrealistic expectations and by other people's opinions... Parents in the UK put kids under immense pressure to succeed and be perfect."
I resonate with this because it took me years to throw off the 'having to be perfect' burden of my own British up-bringing. I was terrified of failure and the result was that I held back from doing the things that I really felt drawn to and speaking up about the things that I cared about. It is only in my later years that I have realised that I am more terrified of coming to the end of my days without having tried - and that what matters for all of us is that we can become the best versions of ourselves.
Nature has not designed us all to be the same, for the very good reason that human communities only work when there is a rich and varied profusion of interests, talents and capabilities that cover all the aspects that make things work. We need people that are great with their hands and can take things apart and put them together again. We need carpenters and electricians and builders and plumbers and gardeners. We need thinkers, explorers, innovators and and scientists. We need artists and writers, musicians and healers. We need people that lead and people that are happy being led. What we don't need is a world where, from the youngest age, children are separated from their natural instincts as exhuberant lifelong learners and where people are made to feel that they only have value and worth within a very limited range of human capacities,.
That is what we are trying to say through the festival - that human beings are extraordinary, diverse, multi-talented and complex creatures - each one of us totally unique and capable of whatever has richness and meaning for us as individuals. But we are also innately social beings that understand ourselves and grow through our relationship with others. Somehow we have allowed systems to be created that have failed to acknowledge this, that have made us fear judgment and failure more than not being who we really are, and that have made success all about qualifications and things, rather than fulfillment and worth. Outer wealth has come at the cost of inner wealth - and that is too high a price to pay.
We want every child to feel valued and special and that can only come about if we are brave enough to question all the old systems through the lens of child, family and community wellbeing. That is what the festival is about and is why I hope you will support us at the event and become part of the solution. Hopefully this is just the beginning of us working together to bring in the new...
You can see the festival website on www.festivalofchildhood.com - and we are now also on Twitter