Cotton wool kids

Fifty years ago, children were allowed to roam free; now, in the school holidays, the streets are empty. Are we doing kids any favours?

Simon Knight

Topics Politics

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‘And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in the streets thereof.’ Zechariah, 8:5

Many changes have taken place since Old Testament times, but if you glance at your street during the school summer holidays, the lack of children thereof is perhaps the most worrying. There is a new omnipotent force on the block – child safety.

While carrying out interviews with older people as part of research into changing patterns of childhood freedoms, I came across stories that I, a child of the 1960s, could identify with, but many of my younger colleagues found startling.

For example, Christine, born in 1937, recalls that at the age of five, ‘I don’t often remember a parent coming down and telling us it was time for us to go home. And I don’t think many of us would have a watch. So we knew it was time to go home when we saw people going home from their work.’ Or Ian, born 1940, says that as a 10-year-old: ‘On a Sunday, I used to go and visit my uncle at Dunscore, 10 miles away. I used to strap my wee sister on the bar of my bike and take her with me. All the way to Dunscore.’

Eyes rolling, workmates ask me: ‘How could parents be so cavalier with the lives of their offspring?’ To me, it doesn’t seem that parents love their children any more now than in the past, just because they are more protective. Instead, there has been a readjustment of how parents understand their children, and how they relate to their communities. Today, the whole world seems to be viewed through the prism of vulnerability.

While a bomb landing on a street in 1940 or a car speeding down what’s left of the same street 60 years later are both a clear and present danger to children, the social responses of the street’s inhabitants seem very different. Risk and safety are today the guiding principles that we are expected to obey. Parents allowing their children similar freedoms to those experienced by my interviewees are regarded as neglectful or even abusive. It takes a brave parent to stand up for their right to be ‘neglectful’!

In September 2005, Generation Youth Issues, the Glasgow research charity of which I am a director, will be organising a conference called ‘Cotton Wool Kids’. Sociologist Frank Furedi, who will be speaking at the conference, draws out the implications of a society obsessed with safety. ‘Probably the greatest casualty of this totalitarian regime of safety is the development of children’s potential. Playing, imagining and even getting into trouble contribute to that unique sense of adventure which has helped society forge ahead. A society that loses that sense of adventure and ambition does so at its peril, and yet that is precisely a possible outcome of a state of affairs where socialising children consists, above all, of inculcating fears in them.’ (1)

The obsession with safety is a constant theme in urban planning and development as well as parental practice – and attenuates the physical and social environment that children inhabit. The result will be to erode community relations. Trust in other adults, parents, youth workers, teachers and ordinary members of the public to ‘do the right thing’ by your children, is an essential building block of community. But with everyone having to go through checks before being allowed to work with children, the official message is ‘trust no one’.

If all employees working with children need to be checked because of the danger posed by paedophiles, then why not everyone? By this logic, any organisation working with children that doesn’t carry out disclosure checks could be complicit in allowing child abuse to go on. Later this year community centre and facility lets from local authorities, by any organisation, voluntary group or private body, will have to have a child protection policy supported by checks. Are we all perverts now?

Spontaneous contact still goes on between adults and children in the public realm, but it is restrained. John (born in 1936) recalls past adult-child relations. ‘[It] was made very clear by your mother and father that if any neighbours saw you stepping out of line than they could certainly sort you out. Not in a rough way, but they could certainly skelp you, slap your backside for you if you were getting too cheeky. But if there was something really bad then they would help you.’

Where this process will end is anyone’s guess. For now, we need a thorough interrogation of the issue of child safety.

Simon Knight is a director of

Cotton Wool Kids? Making Sense of Child Safety will take place on Tuesday 20 September 2005, at Hampden, Scotland’s National Stadium in Glasgow. Details and brochure available at Play Scotland. For booking details contact

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(1) ‘Culture of Fear: risk-taking and the morality of low expectations’, F Furedi, (1997), London: Cassel.

(2) Details and brochure available at Play Scotland.

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Topics Politics


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