Tuesday 25 June 2019

About time we get our priorities right 

This article first appeared in Malta Today 

I know I am not the only one who reads the news and groans in exasperation at what causes Internet outrage.  Usually, the silly season rolls around in summer when a dearth of stories makes non-stories hit the major headlines. Yet it now seems that the festive season is also giving birth to ‘stories’ which make me wonder whatever happened to the news value criteria in newsrooms.  

Who would think, for example, that a classic song about the winter weather would make cyberspace erupt into spasms of rage?  But, Baby it’s cold outside, which was first released in 1944 and has been covered countless times most famously by Dean Martin, was the latest target of people who have nothing better to do than get all huffy and puffy about its lyrics.  According to USA Today, “It has been banned by radio stations across the country – and even in Canada – for its lyrics that some say are inappropriate in the wake of the #MeToo movement.  Those against the song say it promotes date rape, describing a man pressuring a woman to stay despite her adamantly telling him “no, no, no.”

What I really want to say to this is unprintable for a newspaper column, but you can use your imagination. How does a harmless, flirtatious song between a man and a woman written 74 years ago, suddenly become date rape?  I wish we could try and keep everything in perspective because once again, a legitimate movement which is fighting against sexual assault by predatory men in powerful positions who coerce those who can be easily manipulated (which is what  #MeToo is all about) is now at risk of being treated as a joke. No wonder feminism and feminists have become the target of so much ridicule.  As women, this takes shooting ourselves in the foot to a whole other level which means no one will take legitimate cases of real abuse seriously. 

And in any case, if we are going to speak about lyrics which are derogatory to women, I can think of several much ‘worse’ songs, in which case the answer is not to ban them, but to simply not support the artist or their music. 

The cheese cake calamity

No, not the dessert cheese cake, but the Maltese savoury which are more commonly known as pastizzi.  Forget the fact that children have to wake up at the crack of dawn to catch the school bus, forget the fact that the education system is still too stressful, expecting them to learn things at the age of five which in other countries are taught at the age of seven, forget the hours of homework which leave precious little time for play, and forget the fact that they only get an average of 1- 2 P.E. lessons per week.  The latest food-related draconian measure to hit schools is the elimination of pastizzi and sausage rolls from Christmas school parties.

A circular sent by the Curriculum Department to all the heads of the college schools at Primary and Secondary Levels contains an “approved list” for school functions and has caused an uproar among parents and teachers alike.  The list of what parents can or cannot pack in the school lunch box is bad enough, but now that even parties are being policed, it is all becoming quite ridiculous.  No matter how well-intentioned it may be – that of ensuring children eat a more healthy lunch – it is a fact that you cannot force people to do what they do not want to do, and when you interfere in what parents feed their children in such a way, it is bound to backfire for a variety of reasons.   Perhaps some research should have been carried out first into what happened when a similar campaign was attempted but ended up failing.  Jamie Oliver, the famous British chef was determined to change the poor eating habits of his countrymen, by embarking on a school dinner campaign.

According to a news report, alarmed by the rising obesity rates and the amount of junk food being served to kids at school in the UK, Oliver requested and was given a meeting with then-prime minister Tony Blair back in 2005 regarding the dismal state of hot lunches. The School Food Trust was born, with its motto, “Eat better. Do better.” The government initiative swapped fried fare for wholesome vegetables and provided ongoing training to school kitchen staff.  

However, a mini-series which documents how the chef tried to change the junk food mentality in schools has as its blurb: “He learns that not only do the children prefer to eat junk food, but they have very little knowledge of vegetables and fruits and are very afraid of trying anything remotely new.”

Jamie Oliver also met with a lot of resistance from parents as it ended up becoming a social class issue. Interviewed in 2015 by the Radio Times, he admitted that the campaign had failed, “I haven’t succeeded, mainly because I haven’t single-mindedly gone for it. In Britain, eating well and feeding your kid right and being aware about food is all considered very posh and middle class, but the reality is that in most of Europe some of the best food comes from the poorest communities. Our harder-to-reach poorer communities are suffering more.” 

This is not to make it about class – after all, in Malta, the love of pastizzi crosses right across all social classes. But it is purely to demonstrate how foolhardy it is to try and change eating habits with a stroke of a pen by imposing new measures. It simply does not work because there is a defiant streak in human nature which resists being told what to do when it comes to personal choices.  I would rather see the Education Department freeing up more time in the curriculum for much-needed physical activity so that students can get some fresh air (or as much fresh air as pollution will allow), rather than being cooped up and forced to sit still in classrooms for hours, making them hate the very idea of school.  

Educating parents and children about healthy food choices should continue, of course, but targetting Christmas parties where kids are expected to eat carrots and toasted bread with dips (according to the circular), is certainly not the way to do it. 

Good night children, see you never 

It is no secret that the family-friendly measure of free childcare has worked, and has achieved its aims of making it financially possible for more women who wish to do so, to return to the workforce.  But the news that night childcare facilities are to be introduced is just too indescribably sad for words.  This is intended for children whose parents work on a night shift basis, but to me, this is the opposite of family-friendly.   When are parents going to have time to see their children? An hour sandwiched in here and there, in between school, sleeping and work is just not good enough.  There is also something depressingly institutional about carting kids off into a facility at bed time; a time when they are at their most vulnerable and want their parents for comfort and the reassurance of sleeping in their own, familiar bed. 

Some might argue that this is needed for those who have no other choice but to work at night, and who have no other child-care structures in place, but there has to be another way.  It is already bad enough that there are children who are deposited in the early hours of the morning and are collected at 6pm or later.  I realise that single parent families who may not have relatives to help out are the hardest hit in these circumstances because they have no other choice but to go to work, sometimes for long hours.  But we also need to look at this as a complete picture and comprehend the effect this is having on young children who do not see their parents for long stretches of time, making it impossible for them to form that crucial bond.  Other measures are needed to allow parents or a reliable child-minder to be able to be home with their children at night-time. 

As we celebrate Christmas, let us please get our priorities right and really take stock of what type of childhood today’s kids will remember. Ask any adult today and they will probably tell you it was never about how much money Daddy and Mummy made and how many presents they received, but it was about their parents being there, creating a home, having enough time to talk to them, to feel that they loved them, and above all to know that they mattered.  

Powered by