Monday, 27 September 2010

Barefoot Indicator of Well-being?

Whenever I see ‘going barefoot’ used to mean pitiable poverty, I think of my own barefoot childhood. Sure, growing up in Australia, we had shoes if we needed them or were forced into them: go to school, dress nice to go into town or go visiting, dress up for a party. But soon as we were released from propriety, off went shoes, sandals and out with bare wriggling toes. For us, running round barefoot was freedom.

Tough leathery soles able to withstand the prickles of clover burrs, vicious ‘double-gee’ and ‘bindi-eye’ thorny seeds were a badge of pride; we competed to stand longest on searing black bitumen road surfaces ‘hot enough to fry an egg’ (but were never allowed to waste an egg on testing this). I recall the shock, when I went off to university in small-city Perth, finding that wearing shoes was expected – but soon enough, at least around the campus, I was “Oh – you’re the one who goes around barefoot.” It was only when I moved to big-city Sydney that the amount of broken glass and dog-crap underfoot forced me into footwear more often than not. Living in London, the combination of grunge, broken glass and cold climate has consigned my feet to growing soft and lily-white in uncomfortable confinement that rubs into blisters and distorts toes into bunions.

So when I see pictures of barefoot children, my first response is envy -- kids shoeless in grubby t-shirts doesn’t in itself signal pitiable poverty to me. Rather, I’d suggest the degree to which life conduces to smiling barefootedness should be seen as an indicator of well-being – especially for children. Given that the UK has been found worst in the OECD for childrens well-being [add ref/s], a child-focused wellbeing indicator seems sorely needed. Such an indicator, I suggest, could comprise three physical environment and three social factors.

Physical environment factors

These are fairly simple and obvious practicalities -- places where you don’t need shoes for protection and comfort are simply better places to live. Well-being indicators to date tend to ignore this – but it matters, it makes a difference. The second and third link to more complicated issues of social judgement – what is ‘safe enough’?

1) Comfortable climate – number of days per year when outside temperatures are neither too unbearably hot nor too cold for going barefoot. Existing indicators tend to leave out the ‘gift of nature’ contribution that comfortable climates make to the well-being of those who live there – or count its value just as an attractor for rich tourists and incomers but not as something that economists and policymakers should weigh in the economic balance of what matters to the local people.

I recall being startled to see an Encyclopedia Britannica back in the 1970s or so using ‘households with central heating’ as one of their summary set of national comparators: the implication was that the more households had central heating, the better off the country and its inhabitants. But why would anyone in Australia, or New Guinea, or any other tropical or semi-tropical country want central heating? Central heating is an expensive compensation for living in too cold a climate—with depressingly short dim days and long dark nights. More recently, I’ve come across ‘homes with air-conditioning’ used similarly as a national performance indicator -- but air-conditioning is almost always counter-productive and energy-wasting compensation for bad architecture that neglects natural orientation, shading and ventilation design often well used in traditional vernacular building forms, which allow better physiological adaptation to the prevailing outside temperatures. These both valorise technical fix expenditure to compensate for uncomfortable climates, giving superior scores to ‘developed’ economies in uncomfortable places. They impose an inappropriate Euro-US standard that lets ‘Us’ look down on ‘Them’. Let’s bring in an indicator that respects the value of places with enviable climates that don’t need defensive techno-fixes nor expenditure – places where people can comfortably choose to go barefoot.

2) Safe clean terrain – streets where glass and other litter is not dropped, or is cleared up swiftly; streets not dominated and made dangerous and hostile by traffic – even more crucially, streets and bush not littered with land-mines, unexploded ordnance, barbed wire of current or past armed violence. That is, where human activities don’t make walking and running about a threat to life and limb. These hazards are all bad for health, imposing mental stress as well as risk of injury. They are signs of social distrust and conflict.

There’s a huge body of research literature about the harmful social impacts of traffic on individuals and communities – and a growing international experience of the positive differences that ‘traffic-calming’, home-zones and other measures that clear streets of traffic and reduce traffic speed produce as children come out to play again and neighbours come out to say hello to each other.

Availability of ‘natural green spaces’ for children’s play and public recreational access – parks, riversides and seashores, rights of way and space to roam – all help make health and happiness. With increasing concern about rising levels of obesity associated with lack of physical activity (as well as with wrong eating), the ‘walkability’ of places is becoming recognised as vital for public health – taking this up a level into ‘playability’ of places goes the next step further in humanising the tarmac jungles and other built environments we inhabit..

3) Safe enough from parasites, poisons and infection risks – during a spell living in New Guinea, we had to wear flip-flops (thongs, getas) or sandals whenever we went outside, so that parasitic hookworms wouldn’t wriggle in through our bare soles. However, while living on a sheep farm where dried-up disintegrating sheep poo was pervasive, that potential health risk didn’t cramp our barefoot style (but we did resort to footwear when working in fresh-dung-encrusted sheep-yards). Risk judgements are seldom clear-cut; with familiarity, what strangers fear is treated by locals as easily manageable. So this will usually come down as much to social norms about good parenting as it does to actual risk. It’s often a matter of the tribe of kids knowing what dangers to look out for: we knew to watch out for things that look like sticks but might actually be a snake, and not to kick into dark crevices where a poisonous spider might lurk.

Social factors

Wearing shoes is as much or more a social signal – of status, of respectability, of fashion – than about practicality. My argument is that a social climate with mores that stigmatise barefootedness is one of unhealthy pressures and constraints – while social climates which allow going barefoot as normal and acceptable express values that foster well-being.

1) Egalitarianism – why force feet, particularly children’s feet, into shoes that distort and damage them? Often, it is to show that that they are from nice, well-off families, are not ragamuffin street urchins. The more hierarchical the society, the more this matters – so in still-class-conscious UK cities, even children must wear shoes; in the more socially egalitarian Australian suburbs when I grew up there (1960s/70s), being starched and stuck-up was the stigma. The son of a family in our street that owned a big jewellers shop was seldom allowed out to run around with the rest of us: ‘poor Billy May’ our parents called him, kept cabined and confined in his clean white shirts with proper collars, properly shod. In a egalitarian society where physical conditions require shoes, all children would be shod – but I’m suggesting that children are happiest where both environment and relaxed social conditions allow all to run free and barefoot.

I was sparked to write this note while reading The Spirit Level , which sets out overwhelming evidence that more wealth in itself doesn’t make people better off – it is the fairness with which wealth is distributed through society that correlates with most measures of increased well-being, while societies with unequal distribution of wealth perform worse. Acceptability of barefootedness, it struck me, acts as a useful ‘finger in the wind’ for much of what they’re talking about.

2) Tolerance, not judging by appearances -- we didn’t just go barefoot, the basic kids’ dress-code was shorts and t-shirt, usually grubby, often pulled out of shape. But we weren’t on show – appearance wasn’t what well-being, or social standing, were judged on. Grown men, in their off-duty hours, had much the same dress code and were often equally grubby from car engines, barbeques, doing the garden or DIY. Kids’ clothes got handed on around the age-size chain. ‘Waste not, want not’ was a mantra for virtue – showing off, flashing money around, was actually despised. That applied to people we knew – newcomers might initially be judged somewhat more on appearances. So more transient communities, more geographical mobility, lends itself to greater dependence on neat clean and respectable appearance as a key to social acceptance, or at least to impressing the neighbours. Being relaxed about appearances, at least for kids running about, seems a sign of good social trust, one of the essentials of ‘social capital’.

So: we reasonably happy white kids from reasonably secure and prosperous families looked pretty much like the photos of shyly smiling black kids that I now see used to illustrate pitiable poverty – their barefootedness treated as a stigma, a sign of social failure. Sure: barefootedness is more visible than hunger or poverty – but playing about in grubby old clothes and bare feet can be a sign of a place where people are judged for themselves, not judged by what they wear.

3) Freedom, adventure, exploration -- going barefoot went along with being allowed to run wild: making secret dens and tunnels through the undergrowth on vacant blocks, going down to the river to fish for ‘blowies’ off massive sandstone blocks that could be castles or pirate ships, in ever-shifting campaigns of mock-wars and running battles: cowboys and indians, spies, pirates, rival guerrilla bands. These were all in the suburbs of Fremantle before I turned 12, with my brothers and the rest of the street tribe, and barely an adult in sight as far as we took notice. These all add up to safe relaxed circumstances in which to explore, play out stories, develop physical and social independence among age-peers – testing out boundaries of safe(ish) risks and strategies for coping with them, all vital aspects of healthy child development.

The circumstances that conduce to bare feet encourage more open, outdoor life – which allows neighbours to get to know each other, puts children out where many eyes can keep a look-out for them – how much was the shut-away British life-style responsible for the abuse of Victoria Climbie and Baby Peter and so many others being able to go on? Here, before traffic calming, I almost never saw local kids – or if I did, it was heart in mouth that they’d not get mowed down on the street. Post traffic calming, I see the street tribes out and about, and my worries are about how much I ought to inhibit the adventurous 10-year-old lads from setting up ramps for their skateboard and bike stunts in the street. Sure, the boys get in the way of the traffic – but to my mind, it’s the traffic interference with them that’s the problem. Sure, they could break their legs or necks coming off; they could run under a reckless rogue car – but so far, they’ve just been honing their skills and balance, developing their own risk judgements and capabilities. That’s what childhood should be about. It seems that other neighbours, and their parents, share this attitude – the kids need to be allowed to experiment with ’safe risks’ as part of growing up.

Research into the bleeding obvious, as required by the official mind, has shown that time spent outdoors correlates positively with physical activity levels and negatively with obesity. Indoors, what space is there to move, to vent the irrepressible physical energy of childhood, without bouncing off the walls, driving the family and neighbours up the wall? (I’m convinced this accounts for much childhood physical abuse – parents lashing out, simply driven mad by keeping young kids indoors where there’s no safe outdoor space near enough.) Or kids sit about, learn sedentary habits, these days often staring at screens that are windows into fast-evolving, fast-moving cyberworlds: courting early myopia, losing muscle, gaining fat. Outdoors, running about, skipping, throwing and kicking balls, all come naturally. Mental exploration is equally important: space to explore, to marvel at nature, climb trees, to build dens and dams and play about with mud and dirt, bits of wood. Richard Louv’s ‘Last Child in the Woods’ summarises why being out in the natural world matters for children; as does the Children’s Play Council’s ‘Play, Naturally’. [Add refs]

Barefootedness treats quality of childhood as a key test of how well a society or place meets human needs. There’s two dimensions to this. One is children themselves, as a focus of family lives, as the stage when human potential is developed or inhibited. The other is adult nostalgia for childhood, as a state of freedom to play and explore, an idealised haze of memories of moments of happiness, discovery and marvels – before the responsibilities, worries and practicalities of adulthood closed in on us. Places that afford the safety, playability, explorability that make a good childhood will also be good places for adults. Places where children must be locked away for their own protection, at the expense of life-long psychological and physical impoverishment of their potential, their social relationships, their understanding of the world we live in, will also be hostile, depressing, even pathologising places for adults. The statistics of increasing mental illness – depression, anxiety, stress, particularly among young people -- suggest that the urban, monetised world we’ve made ourselves is simply driving us mad. With increasing realisation that wealth-based indicators are poor guides to well-being, an indicator that focuses on some of the qualities that wealth seems to force out of life might be useful.

When I think about barefoot grubby children, I think of happy children – let’s not assume that the money that buys shoes can buy happiness and sunshine, nor confuse freedom with starvation and misery.

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