The surge in child poverty has hit the headlines recently, and rightly so.
According to research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, there were 4 million children living in poverty in the UK in 2015-16. That’s 30 per cent of children, or 9 in a classroom of 30. Much has been reported in the media that appears to assert without exception that poor children do not reach the attainment levels of their richer peers.
While this may be true in many cases, it is not an absolute fact. It also insults low income parents who tirelessly make sure their children can access sufficient opportunities.
It is a fact that children succeed, (within their individual cognitive ability levels), largely because of the attention and input of their parents. This is true whether a parent is on Universal Credit or drawing a large corporate salary.
It is undeniably much more of an unenviable struggle for parents on benefits, but it is not a given that the better-off child will reach a higher attainment level.
There are major factors that position both of these parents’ children on an equal platform after the balance weights are adjusted. What propels children to future success is the ability of their parents or caregivers to provide a safe, loving and consistent environment, in which a child is stimulated and given the scaffolding needed to move forward.
Let’s not be under any illusion: poverty is often a significant barrier. Much more should be done to help families lift themselves out of poverty. However, the constant one-sided coverage about the lack of opportunities for poorer children slaps many diligent parents in the face. Parents who with limited funds provide their children with everything they need and more to propel their children forward – socially, educationally and cognitively. We must acknowledge that many poorer parents are resourceful, committed and multi-skilled in every sense of the word.
Parents who can stay positive while going to a food bank: that is a skill worth praising.
Parents who scour through innumerable charity shops, as many of our clients do, to provide stimulating toys to their children: that is selfless.
Parents who sift nightly through eBay listings to source a second-hand laptop for the kids: that is resourceful parenting.
Raising a child on benefit or a low income relies on skills that many successful executives would find a challenge if performed day in and day out without respite.
What these parents are modelling to their children is resilience and how to find solutions to life’s challenges. It is this resilience and determination that gets us all through the hard times. Many poorer parents have this in spades.
I was at breakfast in a hotel recently, and was struck by an obviously affluent couple. Mother, wearing a white fluffy bathrobe and slippers (presumably in readiness for the Clarins spa) was impatiently adding soya milk to a bowl into which she had carefully measured, several varieties of grains. Dad had his head bowed over a newspaper while absent-mindedly spooning porridge in the direction of their infant’s head. Their child, a boy, perhaps 4 or 5 months old, was propped up with an iPad for company, seemingly being entertained by a cartoon. The animated dog on the screen was getting more porridge than the child. Neither parent noticed. There was no communication between the couple or interaction with the child.
Seriously, can anyone with a grain of cognition really believe that this child of better-off but distracted parents has a more favourable future than a child of the involved parent on benefits or a low wage? A child who receives a book or laptop from the charity shop and has an involved parent to interact with has a flat advantage over the Armani-dressed ignored child raised by a cartoon dog.
While poverty must be eradicated by assisting people to help themselves, it is also crucial that we applaud those parents who struggle and succeed every day to maximise their children’s chances. We need to be cautious about the black and white assumptions we make without considering the other variables that are in operation.
Written by Dr Chrissie Tizzard, Chartered Consultant Psychologist, PsychD, BSc, MSc, C.Psychol, C.Sci, AFBPS. Dr Tizzard is the Clinical Director of Christine Tizzard Psychology (ctpsy.co.uk).