Asking children if they're lonely is asking for trouble

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock 

This week I took my 10-year-old to the ophthalmologist to have her eyes tested. Twice.

Why twice? Because first time round the readings were so erratic as to be nonsensical. She had been so eager to please, bless her, that she responded to the ophthalmologist's tone of voice and provided the answers she thought were the right ones.

Second time around, her eyes were tested by a more experienced member of staff who began by assuring my daughter there were no wrong answers. Job done.

I thought of this episode when I saw the headlines that one in 10 children's lives are "blighted by loneliness". A new Office for National Statistics report has revealed that 14 per cent of children aged 10 to 12 describe themselves as "often lonely".

Children can feel lonely. They can also feel sleepy, sad, angry, happy, excited, impatient and the rest. The real cause for alarm would be if a child didn't feel those things.

The ONS report follows on from Theresa May's pledge to "end loneliness in our lifetimes", which is only slightly more impossible than sorting out Brexit. If replying to a questionnaire results in a kid being branded as "lonely". ought we to also label a cohort of children as "sad" or "angry", simply because they admit to experiencing normal emotions?

By that measure the ophthalmologist should have informed social services that my daughter's desire to say the right thing pointed to emotional coercion, problems at home and a toxic relationship with me, her embarrassing but otherwise quite serviceable mother.

That didn't happen, of course, and such a chain reaction may be some way off, but we are already on a deeply disturbing trajectory when it comes to pathologising absolutely normal human responses to everyday situations. I am well aware that mental health is - and ought to be - a pressing concern to the Government, institutions, employers and educators. For too long it languished as a Cinderella condition nobody was remotely interested in or took seriously.

That children's circumstances - poverty, moving school, being bullied, illness or social media anxiety - make them feel isolated is a great shame.

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But labelling the issue as "loneliness" is a red herring and a damaging one at that. Loneliness is a symptom, it is not the problem, which leads me to worry that entirely natural responses to unfortunate circumstances are being medicalised.

When I was growing up my mother was a grieving widow, money was tight, other girls mocked my hand-me-down clothes, friendships were hard to negotiate. If a grown-up with a clipboard had asked me how I felt, I would have gone for "very lonely". But boy, am I glad nobody asked. Because once something is labelled, paradoxically we can lose ownership of it. If feeling common-or-garden fed up becomes "suffering from low mood" and boredom is construed as lethargy, which is extrapolated into "depression", it can become a self-perpetuating spiral.

I'm absolutely not saying these conditions don't exist, don't ruin young lives and lead, with what can be crippling consequences, to mental illness. But there is a great deal of difference between sensible vigilance over those at risk and scrambling into a panic over an imaginary epidemic.

Just this week Amanda Spielman, the UK's chief inspector of schools, spoke out against a stifling culture which has seen nurseries remove climbing frames from the playground and cooking lessons from the curriculum. Just in case. Health and Safety. Risk management.

Laudable? No, it's lily-livered. And it is the youngsters who suffer. As Spielman emphasised, "lumps and bumps" are part of childhood. I would extend that beyond the physical world to the psychological.

Without the antigens kids get when rolling around in the dirt, their immune system can't defend the body against bacterial infection. And without weathering minor hurts and being made to face the consequences of their own poor decision-making - falling off swings, falling out with friends - how will youngsters ever be strong enough, feel empowered enough to make their own way in the world?

It's high time the three Rs were joined by a fourth; resilience. Resilience cannot be taught. It must be built up, like resistance to disease. We mock the Snowflake generation for being too weak to withstand the slings and arrows of university life, always pleading for statues to be pulled down and safe spaces to be made. What good can ever come of no-platforming, or jazz hands rather than rowdy applause? Just in case.

I vividly remember once asking my then 14-year-old to pick up the landline, which was ringing off the hook. "I don't feel comfortable with that," she replied, her eyes wide with consternation, presumably expecting me to fetch the school counsellor and an emotional triage trolley.

"Life isn't about you feeling comfortable!" I shrieked. "It's about answering phones regardless, tackling any number of tasks you'd rather not and going out and earning a living even when it's raining, your coat has no hood - and it will almost definitely ruin your hair!"

To be fair, I did rather go off on one. But she's 16 now and hasn't so much as whispered the sentiment since, so it's not all bad.

Let's face facts; nobody is ever going to bring back National Service, no matter how much we parents beg. It is up to us to toughen up our children so they can survive, not just tumbling out of a tree but falling prey to what are known as "ordinary feelings". Again, I'm not suggesting we mete out brutality. Just a soup on of reality.

Taking offence at every turn, being paralysed by a diagnosis of loneliness or anguishing over a dearth of social media likes is a wretched way to live.

Our kids can do better. We must show them how. And that begins by not asking so many loaded questions.

The Daily Telegraph, London