Should childhood come with a health warning?
This week, a group of experts raised critical questions about how we mollycoddle children – but they also indulged some childish prejudices.
The modern world is damaging our children, according to a group of eminent experts. More than 100 children’s authors, scientists, health professionals, teachers and academics joined Sue Palmer – education consultant, broadcaster and author of Toxic Childhood: How The Modern World Is Damaging Our Children And What We Can Do About It – in signing a letter to the London Daily Telegraph on 12 September 2006. It ran under the headline: ‘Have we forgotten how to bring up our children?’
Children are suffering, the experts claim, as a result of junk food, school targets and mass marketing. The modern world is not providing them with what they need to develop, apparently, which includes: ‘real food (as opposed to processed “junk”), real play (as opposed to sedentary, screen-based entertainment), first-hand experience of the world they live in, and regular interaction with the real-life significant adults in their lives.’
I share some of the concerns of the signatories, particularly the fact that children now have fewer and fewer opportunities to play outdoors. Children are often no longer able to play in the streets, walk or cycle to school, play in local parks, or just mess about with their friends away from the supervision of parents and teachers.
And yet, many of the letter-signers’ concerns seem to be shaped more by contemporary prejudices about modern living than by expert insights into what makes children tick.
Take the denunciation of junk food. As has been argued elsewhere on spiked, ‘there is no such thing as “junk” food. Our digestive systems do not distinguish between fish fingers and caviar.’ (See Hard to swallow, by Rob Lyons.) We are bombarded with warnings about unhealthy modern diets and eating habits, yet life expectancies continue to rise – in great part due to vast improvements in most children’s diets over the past 100 years.
And consider the warnings about new technologies. We are told that ‘since children’s brains are still developing, they cannot adjust – as full-grown adults can – to the effects of ever more rapid technological and cultural change’. Most serious neuroscientists would dispute such a crass statement.
Also, the idea that children find it difficult to adjust to ‘ever more rapid technological and cultural change’ runs entirely counter to our everyday experience and to most scientific research. Numerous studies highlight the extent to which children are able to grasp and master new technologies. Indeed, many adults don’t understand or use new technologies with the same ease that children do, which perhaps explains why they are so prone to seeing such technology as scary. We should be careful not to transpose our own, adult discomfort with technological and cultural changes on to children.
As former commissioning editor of spiked and freelance writer Jennie Bristow argues in an online debate sponsored by O2 to be launched on spiked next week, titled ‘Young People, Mobiles And Social Networking’: ‘The fact that mobiles and the internet allow children access to “social networks” beyond the geographical boundaries of their daily lives is often seen as deeply scary, but it shouldn’t take too much imagination to see that there is a positive side as well.’
It is not screen-based entertainment that is restricting children’s play-space. Instead, it is adults’ over-anxious desire to remove children from all risks. Adults are overly concerned with keeping children under their control and protection, and out of harm’s way – which means they often end up restricting children’s opportunities for ‘real’ play. It could be argued that it is precisely because children are increasingly denied the freedom and space for experimentation and play in the ‘real’ world that they are using the virtual world to try to gain some autonomy and independence.
The best thing experts can do for children is to argue for them to be given more freedom – not to do whatever they want, of course; they need clear boundaries set by parents. But unsupervised play isn’t just some kind of childhood luxury that kids can do without. It is vital for children’s healthy emotional and social development. Study after study has shown that it helps to develop children’s ability to negotiate social rules and to create their own rules. Children need to learn to deal with risks and develop the capacity to assess challenges. They also need to be given the opportunity to develop resilience to life’s inevitable blows. In short, taking risks in childhood goes hand-in-hand with developing new skills.
There is a danger that the experts feed into current fears for children’s safety, thereby exacerbating the problem they are trying to alleviate. As Frank Furedi, spiked contributor and author of Paranoid Parenting, argued in the online magazine The First Post this week: ‘Despite their admirable intention, the authors of this letter may unintentionally contribute towards reinforcing a culture where every childhood experience comes with a health warning.’
The letter in the Telegraph ends with a call for a public debate ‘as a matter of urgency’, in order to address the ‘complex socio-cultural problem’ of an increasingly restricted childhood. Although children’s lives have improved in very many ways over the decades, the signatories are right in highlighting that we do face a problem. Clearly, we need to ask some serious questions about what an increasingly structured, sanitised and relentlessly supervised world is doing to children. But it is important that we identify what the real problem is, rather than pointing the finger at easy ‘junk’ targets and labelling children as fragile and easily damaged.
So, let the debate begin.
spiked-issue: Parents and kids
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