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Child safety has its own dangers

Are we smothering our kids with care?

Helene Guldberg

Topics Politics

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From choking on food or being poisoned by detergents to falling out of windows or drowning in garden ponds…your child is at risk, from everything. And the greatest risk to children, particularly young children, lies within the home. This is the message of the UK government-backed Child Accident Prevention Trust’s annual Child Safety Week which started yesterday (18 June 2001) (1).

The Child Accident Prevention Trust (CAPT) warns that more than two million children need hospital treatment after an accident – a million as a result of accidents in the home. CAPT’s Amanda Pritchett argues that parents need to ensure that their homes are as safe as possible: ‘Parents have to take control within their own home. Some injuries can actually be very nasty; if you get a burn or a scar it can last for a lifetime.’

The message to parents, carers, children and young people is ‘Accidents just happen? They don’t have to’. So parents should be made aware that ‘accidents happen so quickly’. But does any parent need to be ‘made aware’ of what they can never forget: that accidents can, and do, happen in a matter of seconds?

Everybody knows that children are vulnerable. But in today’s nervous world, it is easy to forget how resilient, adaptable and capable they are. In preoccupying ourselves with the need to keep our loved ones safe, we risk denying them the freedom they need to develop, to grow up. And this has its own, very real, dangers.

According to a Guardian/ICM poll released in August 2000, 79 percent of parents believe the world is more dangerous for children (2). But the fact is that children are healthier, wealthier, safer and better educated than ever before. For a start, more of them stay alive. At the turn of the twentieth century, 150 in every 1000 babies born in the UK died before they reached their first birthday. Nutrition was poor and lack of vaccinations led to deaths from smallpox, diphtheria, measles, typhoid and cholera – among many other diseases. Children are now being immunised against most of these diseases, and significant medical advances over the past decades have led to improved rates of survival for children diagnosed with cancer. Today, the infant mortality rate has dropped to five in every 1000 babies born.

This means, of course, that the Child Accident Prevention Trust is right to claim that the major cause of death in children under 15 years of age is no longer malnutrition or disease, but accidental injury. Yet despite this, child mortality from accidental injury is declining (3). The roads are safer (4), and accidents in the home are declining (5). To put in context the risk facing children from accidents, surely we should be considering this more positive fact: that relatively few children in Britain are being seriously harmed at all.

Is this any consolation to parents, constantly facing the perils of everyday accidents? Whatever the statistics say, surely every premature death is a tragedy to be avoided at all costs. But what if, far from keeping children safe, risk awareness can actually harm children?

Overprotection can never eliminate the risks facing children – and it can bring some new risks of its own. What about, for example, the reaction to the measles, mumps and rubella (MRR) vaccine? Panicked by unproven allegations that this vaccine poses a risk, many parents have refused to immunise their children – potentially exposing all children to the far greater danger of contracting measles, mumps or rubella.

The way overprotection impacts on children’s behaviour also has negative consequences. As adults, people have to find ways of confronting dangers, negotiating traffic and dealing with antagonistic and hostile or well-intentioned and sympathetic strangers. If they have had no practice in living – only being told to ‘yell, run and tell’ if approached by a stranger – how are they going to learn to read the intentions of people they do not know later in life? Similarly, because they are constantly protected from traffic today, the road sense of young children is very poor – leading to higher pedestrian casualties among teenage children who are suddenly faced with having to negotiate traffic (6). By diminishing children’s capacity to deal with danger, overprotection could even be seen to increase the risks they face.

At a deeper level, overprotection damages children’s emotional, social, cognitive and physical development. A wealth of developmental research has demonstrated the importance of unsupervised play in giving children the opportunity to acquire skills such as cooperation and competition, that are only learned through interactions with equals. Symmetrical relations encourage children to learn turn-taking, sharing, leadership skills and how to cope with hostility and conflict. Peer relations help children develop the ability to empathise and control their emotions without adult intervention, and to express, and learn the limits of, their own aggression. In this sense play could be described as providing an ‘apprenticeship for independent living’.

Lev Vgotsky, one of the most influential theorists in developmental psychology, claimed that: ‘In play the child is always higher than his average age, higher than his usual everyday behaviour; he is in play as if a head above himself.’ (7) The Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget pioneered comprehensive observational studies of children’s interactions – concluding that children grow out of egocentric modes of thinking by being confronted with other’s points of view through peer interactions (8). Piaget and Vygotsky provided insights into the significance of play, in terms of physical, intellectual, emotional and social development.

Before three to four years of age, children tend to play in smaller groups in close contact with one or more familiar adults. As they approach their fourth year, having developed an understanding and acceptance of the importance of sharing, turn-taking and fair play, children make rapid strides in their socialisation skills, widening their circle of playmates, and demand less adult attention. Their developing capacity for symbolic play and the development of verbal communication skills transform the nature of their interactions.

Vygotsky described children’s play as both liberating and constraining: pre-school children are ‘free’ to explore new roles in play, but as role-playing with their peers is a cooperative activity, they also have to exhibit a new level of self-control. Children need to be able to act against their impulses – subordinating themselves to the rules of the game. Although a vivid make-believe world is created with improvised rules, these rules have to be meticulously observed. There is also a tacit acknowledgement of leadership: the dominant child decides who should play which major roles and children who do not conform are soon excluded. Through play, children become more proficient in ‘reading’ not only other’s perspectives and points of view, but also their own emotional states, motives and intentions. They become more adept at participating in joint tasks with a common goal. The formation of childhood friendships involves intimacy and trust, as well as tension and conflict.

What does this mean, in practice? For one thing, it means that when adults worry about bullying and intervene in children’s interactions with each other to prevent what is often now known as ‘verbal abuse’, this could interfere with an important developmental function. For example, an Institute of Education longitudinal study found that teasing was widespread in interactions between peers throughout school (9). Pupils often emphasised that teasing was not seen as harmful, but as a part of everyday banter, often between friends. According to the developmental psychologist Peter Blatchford: ‘Some teasing no doubt serves a social purpose, helping to denote limits, helping to define and consolidate friendships, showing off sharpness in social discourse, and jostling for status. Pupils showed that considerable skill could be required in determining what form of teasing was appropriate with particular people.’ (10)

Asbjørn Flemmen, a local head-teacher in Skudeneshavn, Norway, has gone further in recognising the extent to which play challenges children’s existing levels of competence and, through taking risks, develops new skills (11). He pioneered the building of a school playground that positively encourages potentially dangerous ‘thrill seeking’. The aim of the playground – with its many activity areas, such as the jungle, ‘hut-building’ and ‘hide and seek’ – is to maximise spontaneous, unsupervised play. Adults are encouraged to back off at all times.

Accidents may be inevitable in such a risk-taking environment, but the worst that has happened in three years is two broken arms and one broken leg. Most injuries were incurred when the playground first opened. It seems the children quickly appreciated their own limitations and adapted their speed and movements to their abilities. Adults are also discouraged from intervening in conflicts that arise between the children. This has raised some concern among anti-bullying professionals in Norway, but the children seem to have learned how to resolve conflicts of their own accord. The children’s improved levels of fitness, physical mobility and also social skills stunned the parents and teachers.

Adults need to appreciate that conflicts of interest are as inevitable in childhood as they are in adulthood. Children are, of course, not as sophisticated in resolving conflicts as adults, and therefore do need the experiences that will help them develop their social skills. Conflicts and disputes are not necessarily negative experiences in children’s development. Recognising the existence of conflicts of interest, and learning how to negotiate those conflicts and how to respond to and respect others’ points of view, are inevitable and desirable childhood experiences. This is not to say that adults should never intervene in children’s fights: of course, adults need to behave like adults, and they often need to set boundaries and make rules where necessary. But while stepping in is sometimes necessary, completely wrapping children in cotton wool is not.

The detrimental effect of parental fears on children’s development has been suggested in a report by the Mental Health Foundation in June 1999 (12). Bright Futures notes that: ‘Concern about safety and the risk of abuse or violence have limited the amount of time children play outside unsupervised, travel alone or are allowed to attend clubs and youth groups.’ June McKerrow, director of the foundation, said: ‘There are risks to children in insulating them and not letting them develop their own coping mechanisms, or do things their own way.’

Five years previously, Playing it Safe, a report by Barnardo’s, had warned that anxieties over children’s safety had reached unprecedented levels. ‘Children today are living in an increasingly restrictive environment. Dangers from traffic and fear of strangers are reducing the freedom of children to play and develop independent lives. Large numbers of children spend most of their lives under adult supervision. Children have less opportunity to develop coping skills, independence and the capacity to take responsibility for themselves.’ (13)

Of course children are precious. And of course, in our neurotic times, it takes a brave parent to grant children the freedom they need to develop. But unless we chill out a little, we may suffocate our children with our fears, keeping them childlike forever. This won’t keep our kids safe, but it will make us sorry.

Dr Helene Guldberg is managing editor of spiked
(1) See the Child Accident Prevention Trust website
(2) The Guardian/ICM poll can be found here
(3) Child mortality from accidental injury has declined by 34 percent between 1985 and 1992. See ‘Influence of changing travel patterns on child death rates from injury: trend analysis’ by Carolyn DiGuiseppi, British Medical Journal, 314, 1997
(4) The number of cyclist and pedestrian fatalities among children under 19 halved between 1985 and 1999
(5) In 1994, 158 children under 15 died in home accidents. By 1998 the figure had fallen to 118. See Home Accident Death Database
(6) See Road to nowhere by Kate Moorcock, elsewhere on spiked-parents
(7) Mind in Society by Lev Vygotsky, Cambridge, MN: Harvard University Press 1978. According to Vygotsky the basis for development is overcoming the contradiction between the demands of a particular situation, forcing the individual to undertake new forms of behaviour, and the inadequacies of the individual’s existing forms of thought to cope with the task at hand.
(8) In the seminal works The Language and Thought of the Child (1926) and The Moral Development of the Child (1932), Piaget develops his theory about the role of egocentrism – the inability to see things from the perspective of another person – in children’s development. Piaget viewed particular social experiences – symmetrical relationships – as central to a child’s ability to overcome egocentrism in their thinking. Relationships between a child and his or her peers bring out differences of viewpoints which help children make progress towards higher levels of thinking.
(9) ‘Social life in school: pupils’ experiences of playtime and recess from 7 to 16 years’ by Peter Blatchford in the Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 11, 14-24
(10) ‘The state of play in schools’ by Peter Blatchford in Making Sense of Social Development (edited by Martin Woodhead, Dorothy Faulkner and Karen Littleton)
(11) A summary can be found here
(12) The Mental Health Foundation report was called Bright Futures: Promoting Children and Young People’s Mental Health
(13) See the Barnardos website

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Topics Politics

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