Wednesday, 27 December 2006

Life without television

My wife and I have not had a television in the house for the last seventeen years. Our oldest child is sixteen, so that means that all four of our children have grown up without television.

When I mention this to people, they express a variety of reactions, ranging from 'you must be nuts', through 'they're not really very expensive', to 'I wish I could…' A recent correspondent on an egroup wrote: "How do you do it? I would have withdrawal symptoms like Heroin withdrawals. What do you do with yourselfs? (sic) I mean my goodness! I'm in shock!! ;) "

So I propose to say a little about how we came to be such social oddities, the impact we believe it has on ourselves and others, and why acquiring a television would now seem like a very bizarre decision to us.

It all started when we moved house. Up till then we had hired a television, and watched the news, weather and current affairs, the occasional film, and so on. We also had a hired video recorder (remember them…?). When we came to move, we realized that we had recorded dozens of films over the last few years, many of them good, and yet never found the time to watch them. That led us to consider whether it was worth hiring either piece of kit in our new house. If we had such a backlog and had never found time to watch them, what was the point?

So we didn't bother, immediately after moving, just to see how we would get on without one. We have never looked back. I give that history to make it clear that we didn't give up TV because we were some kind of nutters. If anything, we have become more nutty since - if it is nutty to start to question the value of the television and the culture it helps to promote and perpetuate.

Our four children are not the social pariahs everyone warned us they would be if denied this most fundamental human right. On the contrary, because they have learned from an early age to entertain themselves and play with each other, to read books and create imaginary worlds, and so on, they are very popular with their peers. They make good play fellows and intelligent conversationalists. Friends love coming to our house because there is always something going on: dressing up and producing a show, making music, playing a game…

We do not restrict them from TV altogether - they watch at their gran's and at friends' houses. Moreover, we get DVDs of films that they will enjoy from the library and play them on the computer.

As for how we fill our time, I find there are never enough hours in the day anyway - how people would fit in watching TV is a total mystery to me (especially when I consider the number who tell me they can't find the time for prayer or even exercise…)

It's certainly true that we miss some aspects of TV - my wife loves films and I would like to watch sport, but the perspective of fifteen years without a TV makes me convinced that we are better off without one.

For example: we are not de-sensitised by the relentless barage of high-impact visual images that TV thrives on - when our kids go to a film at the cinema, they laugh or cry or shriek, while most other kids sit there looking comotose; we are not playing host to other peoples' values or need to 'push back the boundaries;' we sit down to meals together and talk to each other; we help each other with homework and chores; we play together; we make music together; we pray together.

If you ask our kids whether they'd like to have a TV, you'd get a split vote. The younger two would say yes, the older two no. I'm guessing that the younger two will decide we are right, too, as they mature a bit.

Above all, my wife and I are striving to bring our children up to dare to be different from the culture in which we live. We try to do that by making their lives more fun, more stimulating and more challenging than their friends'. And having no television is a fantastic starting point for that project.

Wednesday, 20 December 2006


As you might expect, we do Christmas a little differently.

The most outrageous thing is that we make a distinction between Christmas and Advent - we celebrate Advent in the 4 weeks preceding Christmas, and Christmas on Christmas day itself and the following 12 days.

So - to the scandal of our friends, neighbours and the rest of the world - we don’t put up our decorations or Christmas tree till the night of Christmas Eve. That has the benefit of everything being very fresh and exciting for Christmas Day. They then stay up until Twelfth Night - the feast of the Epiphany.

In Advent, by contrast, we have an advent wreath and advent calendars, and sing O Come O Come Emmanuel each evening, with the right candles lit on the wreath before our evening prayers. We also have a Jesse tree and have a reading from the Bible each night, to recall the whole of salvation history.

We try to keep presents within reasonable bounds: we want the kids to enjoy Christmas without it becoming an orgy of materialism....

In defiance of all health and safety busybodies everywhere we have real candles on our Christmas tree.

And of course we maintain the religious nature of the feast.

As I write this the big girls are practicing playing Carols for the Christmas Eve carol service...

Tuesday, 19 December 2006

Schools and Critical Thinking

One of the more difficult boundaries to tread when being a counter cultural father is that of teaching kids to be intellectually critical of what they are taught at school, whilst upholding their respect for their school, their teachers, and education.

There are some areas where this comes into sharp focus. For example, most school’s approach to religious education is to teach religion as an interesting, if rather archaic, sociological phenomenon, and to present all religions as pretty much the same and being worthy of respect.

We however, teach our kids that our Faith is true, and that all others, in so far as the contradict ours, must ipso facto be in error.

This is more honest, but much less acceptable these days. But to teach about religions without highlighting that the essence of them is that they make truth-claims seems to me to be the opposite of education.

The True Faith in our schools, of course, is Darwinism. To see that, one has only to raise questions about Darwinian theory - or even to suggest that it is a theory and not a proven fact - is to incur the charge of heresy. It’s not worded quite like that, but that is the message.

I’m not, as it happens, a literal creationist (7 24-hour days and all that); but I cannot buy the notion that evolution can account for the great leaps from nothing to matter, from inanimate matter to animate; from animate matter (plants) to animals, or animals to man. Intelligence and order. Darwin has nothing to say about any of these, and his high priests and acolytes hate to be reminded of that fact.

So I arm the kids with penetrating questions, so they can act as socratic gadflies: they rather enjoy it, as do the better teachers...

Monday, 18 December 2006

Marriage better than co-habitation

Iain Duncan-Smith’s report that family breakdown is a cofactor of bad outcomes for kids is of course no surprise. And he acknowledges that co-habiting couples are much more likely to split up than married couples. But he and the Tories risk falling into a an error similar to Labour’s over University education, and suppose that incentivising marriage is the solution.

The problem is deeper than that: there are common underlying reasons for couples choosing not to marry and being unable to sustain relationships. Getting those couples simply to go through the formality of marriage is unlikely to be the solution.

We have created a vicious cycle of poor parenting leading to selfish, irresponsible and emotionally immature adults, who then pass this on (magnified) to their kids...

It would take a brave government to confront these issues properly, and I see no candidates for that at present in any political party.

Sunday, 17 December 2006

Schools - Sex Ed

OK it’s time to get a bit more counter-cultural. So far this blog has been a bit motherhood and apple-pie, nothing much to disagree with. That stops here.

I think if parents are to be successful in raising counter-cultural kids, they need to work out how their kids are going to survive the indoctrination offered by the school system - or else remove them from the line of fire.

Home-schooling is a great option, which I will come back to in a later post. However, some of us stick with the school system and need to identify the perils therein.

At the top of my mind today is sex education. We had a parents’ evening meeting about it at my childrens’ junior school, and I was frankly outraged at what is being done.

As as part of this, we were shown a ‘tasteful’ video which the kids were going to see, including a cartoon couple having sex.

If anyone but a teacher were to make my kids watch videos of people having sex, he would be put on the sex offenders’ register.

We were also given a handout which included the claim that ‘Research has shown that sex education helps to reduce teenage sexual activity.’ When questioned the head was unable to refer me to that research - he had simply copied the quotation out of the booklet supplied with the video. To his credit he was embarrassed to admit this...

On further examination, the booklet offered no reference to research to back up the claim either. Moreover the booklet was produced by Brook.

Much of the research evidence I have seen suggests that early and explicit sex education is a co-factor with early sexual activity, as is the provision of the services that Brook offers.

In an age of evidence-based medicine it is extraordinary that the response to the failure of the government’s sex education strategy (soaring levels of STDs among teeenagers, for example) is to try more of the same....

I had a further meeting with the head, who admitted the school’s policy was a fudge, and I sent him this letter as a follow up...

Dear Mr **********

Sex and Relationships Education

Thank you for making time to see me at such short notice this morning, and also for the courtesy and understanding with which you discussed my concerns.

As I mentioned, Anna and I having discussed this further, we would now like to confirm that we will be withdrawing Charlie and Dominique from all parts of this programme which are not compulsory as part of the National Curriculum.

I thought it might be helpful to summarise those concerns, as you mentioned you may wish to discuss them with the County Advisor.

The primary concern is the ideological one. On one side there are those like me who believe that we should be educating our children for life-long monogamous marriages; on the other, those who want to see children as informed, active, consumers of sex. If you think I am over-stating the position, look at the www sites for fpa and Brook, where they make their position, including condoning under-age sex, very explicit. They are advocates of children’s right to enjoy their sexuality, and are among the country’s leading campaigners for and providers of abortion.

It is evident that Brook and fpa talk the language of ‘relationships’ to get their material past parents: there is none of that concern in their www sites. But of course any teenager can convince himself that the current infatuation is ‘a meaningful loving relationship.’ That kind of thinking provides no protection against promiscuity - but then it is not intended to.

The middle ground is made up of those who would prefer children to delay having sex and not be too promiscuous, but believe that they can’t be stopped. That risks being a self-fulfilling prophecy, transforming the historical pattern of a very small number of children being sexually active into a much larger number being so.

The evidence on early sexual activity and multiple partners seems pretty clear: the two go together, and are an unhealthy combination, physically, emotionally and psychologically. Oddly, Brook and fpa, who are so keen to deal in fact, ignore these facts absolutely - as they ignore the research which shows that 70% of girls who engage in sex early (pre-16) regret it later on and wish they had waited.

These different ideologies naturally lead to radically different approaches to sex education. I believe sex is private (indeed sacred), and that taboos (and even some things labelled by the government’s experts as prejudices) are often helpful in protecting children from premature exposure to adult issues and from aberrant thoughts and behaviours. The other side believe that anything goes (as long as it is consensual), and that openness and choice are the primary virtues.

Whilst I fully understand that the school has to comply with the government’s directives on this, the government’s view is not the only one, and some research suggests their policy to be ill-founded. I can give you details of that if you are interested (eg Marsilio and Mott’s study, based on interviews with 12000 US children which identified 4 co-factors of teenage sexual activity, of which one was sex education,)

The reason that the government is so keen on pushing this into junior schools seems to be the remarkable failure of it at senior level - indeed the more they push sex education, the more promiscuous the children seem to become with all the attendant physical, emotional and psychological damage that implies. Again, I can supply data showing the increase in teenage promiscuity coinciding with sex education, and also with the existence of Brook Advisory Centres in a locality. For example, those areas targeted by the government with special measures have seen greater increases in teenage conceptions (Oxfordshire 7.3%, Cornwall 16.4% and Torbay 22.4%) I can also supply research questioning the lessons drawn from the Dutch experience (which may be the source for the research cited in the booklet you quoted).

My second major concern is the psychological impact of sex education at this age. The risk is that it disrupts the children’s latency period - a development period widely acknowledged by psychologists when they are not naturally interested in sex. Many psychologists see the disruption of this by sex education as abusive and dangerous. For one psychologist’s assessment of this, see Melvin Anchell’s Killers of Children. I believe our children have a right to stay children and stay innocent, and that the fact that there are commercial interests desperate to turn them into adolescent consumers earlier and earlier should not drive education policy.

The third area of concern is the philosophical one. The whole approach explicitly outlaws any absolute moral teaching (We don’t judge others, we respect the choices of others...) in the sexual realm. It is curious, then, how ready the same non-judgmental policy condemns behaviour of which the government really disapproves (bullying, discrimination). In fact the implicit lesson of this whole approach is that sexual morality is subjective. This begs a massive philosophical question and risks teaching an absolute answer (ironically!) to children before they are even able to comprehend the issues at stake.

It seems to me therefore that the schools are being used by one side of an ideological debate, that the evidence supporting what you are required to do is, to say the least, unproven, and that the government is in effect experimenting with our children with potentially very grave consequences.

I can supply the research references for all the claims made above, if that would be helpful to you. Thank you once more for the time and trouble you took to understand and engage with these concerns and to explain where the school stands and how it intends to proceed.

Yours sincerely

Wednesday, 6 December 2006


This counter-cultural thing really started when I noticed how friends and colleagues with teenage children had very different experiences. Some seemed to have great relationships with their teenagers and others very stormy ones.

Whilst some of this may well be nature rather than nurture, I was keen to learn if there was anything I could do to set us up to have great rather than stormy relationships.

One thing I did notice was that there seemed to be a very high correlation between those who spent a lot of time with their kids at younger ages and those who had easier teen years. Conversely, some of the families we know had been in situations where the father, in particular, had been able to spend a lot less time with the family, whether through pressures of work, or having work that took him far from home regularly, or through other circumstances such as illness.

So I resolved some years ago to spend as much time as I could with the family, ideally in ways that the children would find enjoyable, in the hope that, on their hitting adolescence, we would still be able to talk to each other.

So far our two teenagers (both girls) are still very civilised - though I do feel as though I’m tempting fate even to say so...

Sunday, 3 December 2006


As part of our commitment to ensure the kids have more fun than their friends (as a way of making them enjoy being different rather than wishing they were allowed to conform to their peer group) we encourage them to discover and pursue hobbies and activities which they enjoy.

Ant is very keen on climbing and sailing, and is an Explorer Scout. She was recently revising for her mock GCSE French aural at the top of the pine tree in our back garden, swaying in the wind some thirty or forty feet up, bellowing out French phrases - on the basis that if she could do it clinging to a tree for dear life, it would be easy in exam conditions. Building things (tree-houses, aerial runways, dens) is another of her interests.

Bernie loves animals, so takes Goldie for walks and goes horse-riding regularly. She's also a keen ice-skater, though the nearest rink is some way away, so we don't get to go that often. She has a keen sense of humour and is a good mimic, so can normally have the last word on anything by some apt quotation (in character) from one of the many movies she has off by heart.

Charlie is a moderately keen (would like to be fair-weather) footballer, but is happiest curled up with a book. He reads anything and everything - when younger he would curl up with Asterix or Tintin books in French, sounding out the words to himself, and just enjoying the noise they made, as well as the picture stories. If someone is in the loo for hours on end, it will be Charlie sat there reading! He also is the family practical joker.

Dom has yet to discover her real interests; she enjoys most things, especially her ballet classes and playing with her brother and sisters. She does a lot of craft activities and loves stories in books, on tape, read aloud...

They are all very keen on music, too - playing rather than listening. Cookery is another favourite all round, particularly if large quantities of chocolate are involved. Also dressing up: we have a large dressing up box full of the most outrageous assortment of clothes and accessories; these are used for shows which the kids design and produce together on the least provocation. They also emerge spontaneously: quite often Charlie and Dom will be seen running round the garden in Chinese pyjamas and helmets, or fairy wings and long red boots or other incongruous combinations.

One of the important aspects of this is our taking an active interest in their hobbies, and getting them to take them seriously (not in the sense of being joyless, but in the sense of turning up when committed, and reading round the subject etc.)

As a result, they rather pity their school friends whose idea of a good time is to hang around the shopping centre...

Their friends tend to enjoy coming round, as there's always something going on - often like nothing they ever experience at home.


We encourage the children to play instruments and sing.

It has been good to see the recent research showing that this develops their brains - but I think parents know that kind of thing intuitively.

The key to making this work is a combination of it being voluntary and compulsory. That is, none of them has to learn an instrument, but if they want to do so, they must practice.

In fact, Ant has both piano and clarinet lessons, Bernie flute and piano, and the little ones both learn the piano.

They all enjoy it, and we rarely have to police practice for the bigger two, though the little ones need frequent reminders.

The contributions I believe this makes are:

- recognising that you achieve through persistent practice
- recognising that once you are committed to something that has implications (ie regular practice!)
- a lot of potential for fun (eg playing duets, singing on long car journeys etc)
- a lot of confidence-building as they reach a decent standard
- interesting ways for the less articulate ones to communicate, and express emotions.
- constructive ways to fill time (people sometimes ask what on earth we do, not having a telly. In fact, we struggle to fit in all the things we and the kids want to do...)

Interestingly they enjoy making music far more than listening to it, and are not really into pop music at all - for which we are duly grateful.

A Walk in the Rain

It was pelting down with rain after lunch today, so what better thing to do that take the kids and the puppy, Goldie, for a walk.

All were well wrapped up, though Charlie (10) hadn't the sense to put boots on, so went in his trainers, which I didn't spot till too late.

The path down to the river was a stream in itself, and the wind was blowing a gale (literally - there were 'dangerous wind' warnings on the radio).

Halfway down, Charlie wanted to turn back, but the three girls were keen to press on, so we continued.

The field by the river was partially flooded - we had to abandon the path all together and edge along clinging to the barbed wire fence, which the wind was determined to blow us into. The puppy loved it - as did we all, including Charlie by this time. There were cries of 'this is totally wicked.' The kids all tried to lie on the wind, leaning back into it as it gusted and then falling into the wet mud when it diminished. It was both great fun and also mildly unpleasant - very cold with the rain really stinging our cheeks in the gale force wind.

Anna and I enjoyed it almost as much as the children did, and when we got back and peeled off the wet things, all agreed it had been one of the best walks for weeks. Goldie, of course, thinks every walk wonderful...

It seems a very simple thing, but I believe these shared experiences of laughter, adversity, and hot chocolate afterwards by the fire do a lot to provide us a sense of identity as a family.