The Sock Blog (or why Cameron should STFU about #PoorKids)


I tweeted a cry for help on Twitter this morning:

The woman (for it will be a woman) who finally invents self-pairing socks will have my undying gratitude.

The response was immediate and the replies interestingly gendered. The women (I’m guessing mainly mums) came back with a range of suggestions of variable utility.

Persuade everyone to wear odd socks; tights; wash only one size at a time and buy only one colour; buy ‘pairwithaspare’; go sockless.

Nearly all the men had more or less the same idea…*

Get all black ones, innit?

What was clear from the replies was that men (mostly) expected to be responsible only for their own socks and for them the solution was simple. The women were, like me, looking after a whole family of socks for feet of various sizes and had to obey a range of sock laws imposed by institutions and individuals alike, which meant that sock-pairing was a recognised challenge.

The ‘all black, all the time’ solution works only if everyone shares the same shoe-size. Other solutions are scuppered by school uniform regulations, by children insisting on growing all the time, by families sharing hand-me-downs, by girl socks and boy socks being different, by itchy elastic being a curse for some and barely noticed by others.

Let’s be clear, it’s not that I’m incapable of pairing socks, it’s simply that I resent the time I spend doing it when I could be doing other more interesting or more useful things. It was a silly tweet, with silly answers, and I’m glad that no-one came back with the suggestion that I shouldn’t have children, if I couldn’t deal with pairing their socks.

* Though a special mention goes to @richardblogger for the suggestion of linking socks together with elastic like children’s mittens. The entertainment possibilities are fantastic!


Last week the BBC aired ‘Poor Kids’, a documentary from children’s perspectives about growing up in poverty. The online response was passionate. Many people couldn’t believe that in a ‘first world’ nation in the 21st Century there were children living like this. Those of us who work in children’s services will have seen homes and lives like this before, but for many viewers this was a first exposure to lives they could hardly contemplate. Twitter was lit up with demands that ‘everyone should watch this programme’ or with suggestions that people give to children’s charities.

Not everyone’s response was so full of compassion though. Some acknowledged how sad they were to see such bright, spirited children in such terrible conditions but: ‘you know they’ll be terrifying in 5 years time’; others considered the programme to be ‘leftwing propaganda’; another remarked ‘I know I’m not a parent yet, but some parents aren’t very good at it’ – as though poverty and parenting difficulties were two separate things, or bad parenting caused poverty, rather than poverty (and the causes of it) making parenting very much more difficult. Even the film-maker, Jezza Neumann, says in this blog that he asked some questions about the decisions families made that he was embarrassed to have asked once he realised what lay behind them. Why would a single mum who could barely feed her children keep a dog, indeed?

Like the less-than-helpful sockpairing suggestions from those who have only ever had to pair (or not pair!) their own socks, advice about how to deal with parenting or poverty, let alone parenting in poverty, is pretty weak when it comes from those who don’t have relevant experience themselves. But at least the sockpairing suggestions came from a good place. David Cameron is something else. He searched really hard (I’ll bet) and failed to find any compassion at all. Using that mouthpiece of hateful, reactionary attitudes, the Daily Mail (see safe, istyosty link below), he warned ‘feckless parents who expect to raise children on benefits’ that he was seeking to ‘change the values of the nation’:

As tweeter @MediocreDave put it so eloquently:

Only David Cameron could see a program like #PoorKids and think the solution is that those children should never have been born.

The idea of ‘affordability’ of children may make sense if your sense of your future includes being a homeowner, having a stable job, being able to afford a pension etc. It’s a nonsense if you spend your time in a revolving door from one low-paid job to another, or odd jobs between extended bouts of unemployment, if you don’t imagine you’ll ever live in a house, let alone own one. 

The Parenting Obstacle Course.

Parenting is full of joy, but it is also made up of tasks as thankless as sockpairing but a good deal harder and more time-consuming. I am blessed with a partner in work, a good job myself and good physical and mental health. And still, when I listed, this morning, the 18 additional things that need doing for and with our children in the coming week, on top of the usual shopping feeding, watering, washing, dressing, packed lunches, homework etc. it looked like a mountain of work. For some people I know with long term health problems sorting the laundry may be all they are physically capable of doing in a day. And that’s on a good day. These families are surviving with so few resources, so little help, such little respect granted to them from those of us who have so much. We should admire their ingenuity, their courage, their stoicism. We should be championing their rights, their dignity, their entitlement – yes, entitlement – to financial and practical support, instead of calling them names and scapegoating them because politicians, economists and bankers took a gamble that failed. or because we’ve internalised a set of Victorian values about the deserving and undeserving poor.

One great analysis of how families in poverty survive, why they live as they do, and the relentless logic that propels and compels their ingenious (if disapproved of by politicians) solutions is the SILK report ‘Just Coping’ (from the Social Innovation Lab for Kent):

It’s 114 pages long, but deserves reading every bit as much as Poor Kids deserved viewing. Put aside your sockpairing and other chores for today and have a look. It will be more interesting and more useful than most other things you could think of to do.

Changing the world, a child at a time.

Something else that moved me this week was this blog from @HeardInLondon “Some things bereavement has taught me“:

I was reading it sitting next to two of my children, and was really struck by the notion of them as ‘Gene Ambassadors’. As HeardInLondon realised with great honour that she is her mother’s representative here now, I realised, with great pride, that these children would one day be my ‘Gene Ambassadors’ in this world.

I am someone who likes to think I’ll change the world one day. I realised with surprise that by bringing these children into it, I already have done. I wouldn’t deny that pride, that joy, that honour, to any other human being, just because they have less cold, hard cash than I do.

Changing the world, for all our children.

There are great children’s charities out there, and I wouldn’t pick a fight with anyone who watched Poor Kids and thought they should give more to a children’s charity. But understand that charity is not the answer. Too many people vote for parties and policies that entrench inequality and social disadvantage; too many people vote against sensible and compassionate policies that would lift children out of poverty through supporting their families. Too many people vote in their own self-interest alone, believing the lies and the scapegoating of others, and then, when confronted with what that means for vulnerable children – who have no vote, remember – drop a few extra pounds into a charity box and think that covers it. 

Next time you’re told a lie about the fecklessness of poor families that have more children than they can afford, remember which newspaper and which party told you that lie. And don’t buy that paper, or vote for that party next time.

Together we can change the world for all our children.  



Protecting our Children – from our own nasty habits.

What could be wrong with wanting to protect our children from rampant
commercialisation and inappropriate sexualisation? Even the most
die-hard opponent of current government reform must – surely – approve
of the new measures pre-announced in the press today to “stop
retailers selling inappropriate clothes for pre-teens and to shield
children from sexualised imagery across all media”?…

Well, call me a knee-jerk oppositionalist, but I’m not sure that I do.

(I suppose I shouldn’t pre-empt the actual report, but as the
Government these days seems so determined to use the media to announce
policy, rather than parliament, I’ll comment on what’s in front of me.
I’ll eat my words later if I misjudged.)

Problem 1: the proposals are too narrow. “Retailers would be required
to sign up to a new code preventing the sale of items for pre-teens
with suggestive slogans, which the prime minister has repeatedly
criticised.” Aside from the fact that I don’t want to live in a world
where the definition of unacceptability is ‘things the prime minister
has repeatedly criticised’, I am as offended by T-shirts that
stereotype boys as dirty little mischief-makers and girls as
attention-seeking, hysterical divas as I am by the ones with overt
sexual messages. So an approach which properly addressed sexual
stereotyping (which is part of what enables subsequent objectification
and sexualisation) would cover much more than T-shirts saying ‘future
gold-digger’, or pre-teen padded bras.

Problem 2: the proposals have no teeth. A robust approach would do
rather more than ask retailers to sign up to a (voluntary) code, or
expect the ASA to ‘discourage’ inappropriate advertising close to
schools and nurseries (because of course, children never go to shops,
or stations or sporting venues or any other public spaces).
Pre-watershed viewing already generally excludes images of sex and
violence (though I do agree that many music videos are grotesque in
the way they objectify women) but even after the implementation of
proposed new arrangements pre-watershed viewing will still, no doubt,
include adverts for Lelli Kelly shoes (Grrr!), fatty, sugary or salty
foods, adverts that breach the WHO code of practice on breast milk
substitutes etc. and adverts which promote ridiculous gender
stereotypes. If we are serious about protecting our children from
commercialisation and sexualisation, we should seriously consider
outlawing all advertising during programmes aimed at children (and
yes, I know the argument that we will only be able to afford to make
children’s TV if we can generate revenues from advertising to them;
we’d find a way, if we tried).

Of course, it’s possible that the proposals don’t actually need teeth
because I note, by the way, that in keeping with the government’s
general rigour about evidence-based policy-making “Ofcom currently has
no figures on the number of complaints made about pre-watershed
material by parents.” Hmmm.

And there’s the futile suggestion about age verification on internet
access. Of course age can’t be verified over the internet! I don’t see
how it can. Are we going to chip and pin our children at birth, so
that their internet usage can always be checked as ‘age appropriate’.
Most children I know who are accessing sites above their age range
have been initially supported in doing so by their parents. I may not
agree with all their judgements, but I do agree that it is their
responsibility to judge when their children are old enough to access
particular content.

Problem 3: the new ‘vested interests’. There’s a proposed website – of
course! a website – to “act as an interface” (or as I call it, “to get
in between”) parents and regulators. So, yet another government policy
which includes an IT project. And this one, we’re told, Mumsnet have
offered to host. That’s Mumsnet, with whom the British Retail
Consortium has held a consultation (as opposed to holding one with a
broader range of parents), and Mumsnet with their campaign slogan “Let
Girls Be Girls” – as opposed to, erm “Let Children Be Children” (or
anything else non-stereotyping). Let me say that I don’t have anything
particular against Mumsnet, but like David Cameron, they don’t speak
for me.

The real problem: isn’t with the proposals at all, despite the flaws I
have outlined above. The real problem lies with many adults,
including, in some cases, parents. The Guardian says the report finds
that “some parts of the business world and sections of the media seem
to have lost their connection to parents. We are living in an
increasingly sexual and sexualised culture although it is far from
clear how we arrived at this point. Many parents feel this culture is
often inappropriate for their children and they want more power to say

Parents have the power to say no. We can switch off the television; we
can refuse to buy the products that are pressed on us so solicitously;
we can be good role models for our children. It is not ‘far from
clear’ how we have arrived at this point. It is obvious. As a culture
we have allowed the demands of business, and in particlar the
profitability of business, to be seen as a greater good than the needs
and interests of our children and the adults we hope they will become.
We – the adults – are the consumers of this stuff, though we appear to
be ashamed of it and want to hide our habits from our children. I
don’t want ladmags concealed in brown paper wrappings in the newsagent
because they are not suitable for children. I want them off the
shelves entirely because the casual objectification of women is not
good for adults of any gender. If we think we can facilitate a
commercialised and sexualised world for adults, and that corporations
whose only interest is profit will voluntarily protect our children
from the consequences of that, we are fools.

I don’t want David Cameron dictating what slogans my children wear on
their T-shirts and I don’t want Mumsnet as an ‘interface’ between me
and the regulator. I do want to see a less commercialised and less
sexualised world for us all, not just for children. I don’t believe
any voluntary code of practice will deliver that. So I will remain
responsible for my buying decisions, and I will take positive steps to
help my children process and deal with the barrage of confusing images
they are subjected to. I urge other parents to do likewise.