Are children being held hostage by parental fears?

A new report calls on parents to let their kids venture out unsupervised. That might be easier if scaremongering officials put a sock in it.

Helene Guldberg

Topics Politics

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It cannot be easy being a parent today. They get criticised for not giving their children the right kind of love and attention and for not sufficiently protecting them from a never-ending list of risks. And now they are criticised for overanxiously keeping their children tied to their apron strings. Last week, the UK Children’s Society published a report, The Good Childhood Inquiry, which caused a splash with its claims that children are becoming hostages to parental fears.

The report argues that parents are denying children the freedom to mess around with friends, a freedom that we ourselves once enjoyed. Play is essential for children and young people, the report points out, because it allows them to practice making and consolidating friendships and dealing with conflict. That means being given the space to play away from adult supervision. Yet according to research by Play England, a campaign group sponsored by the National Children’s Bureau which calls for kids to have access to good and free local play space, in 2003 67 per cent of 8- to 10-year-olds and 24 per cent of 11- to 15-year-olds had never been to the park or the shops on their own.

An NOP survey commissioned by The Children’s Society found that 43 per cent of adults thought children should not go out unsupervised until they were 14 years old. Other research has found that in 1970 the average nine-year-old was free to roam 840 metres from his or her front door. By 1997, that had shrunk to 280 metres.

Bob Reitemeier, chief executive of The Children’s Society, warned: ‘If we go too far down the road of being overprotective and not allowing children to explore, to play, to be up with their peers, but also with children of other ages, then we may be influencing the way in which they look at society and social interaction later on.’ (1)

So, in preoccupying themselves with keeping their loved ones safe, are parents denying children the freedom they need to develop and grow up? Quite possibly so. But can we really blame parents for this? As many contributors to spiked have argued, parents are constantly being inundated with warnings about the dreadful things that can happen to their children if they do not keep a watchful eye on them at all times.

Now that there is a growing recognition that parental fears are exaggerated, the finger of blame tends to be pointed at the media – and, of course, the media do have a lot to answer for. No doubt parental fears have been exacerbated by the relentless reporting of the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, and the earlier coverage of the murders of Soham schoolgirls Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in 2002, and the abduction and killing of Sarah Payne in 2000. Alongside this, there are frequent media reports about an obesity epidemic killing our kids, the dangers of bullying and how older children – ‘feral teens’ – are running riot. All of this no doubt contributes to a sense that the world is a dangerous place for children. However, it is disingenuous to pin all the blame on the media. The government and government-sponsored charities have done far more than their fair share of scaremongering.

Consider the government-sponsored Child Safety Week. As I pointed out on spiked in 2001, the message communicated by charities during that year’s Child Safety Week was that ‘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’ (see Child safety has its own dangers, by Helene Guldberg). Later this month, some of the tips parents will be given by the Child Accident Prevention Trust (CAPT) during Child Safety Week 2007 may be sensible, but they are also patronising. The message of this year’s Child Safety Week is ‘Safer children, healthier lives. Pass it on’ – because of course mums and dads don’t know that it is good to keep children safe and healthy. When parents are constantly reminded about how vulnerable children are, it is not surprising that they lose sight of how resilient, resourceful and capable children could be – if they were given more of a chance to make mistakes and to learn from them.

American social worker and family therapist Michael Ungar, author of Too Safe for Their Own Good: How Risk and Responsibility Help Teens Thrive, argues: ‘Adults go to great lengths to protect children from the very experiences of failure children need to grow up healthy.’ From his experience of working with troubled teenagers, Ungar has become convinced that children need to be given more opportunities for risk-taking, as well as more responsibility. The troubled youths he works with, whether they have grown up with many advantages or none, have all told him that they crave adventure and responsibility. ‘Both necessarily come with a sizable amount of risk. And both are often in short supply in families and communities dead set on keeping their children too safe for their own good’, he argues (2).

The UK government and various government agencies not only constantly warn parents about the need to prevent accidents – they have also played a key role in undermining, or even breaking down, people’s trust in other adults outside of the family. The Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill, for instance, which is currently working its way into law, will make it compulsory for any adult who comes into contact with a child as part of his or her working day to undergo criminal records checks. The message is clear: don’t trust any adult, as they may be out to harm or abuse your child. (3) Is it any wonder that parents don’t feel confident letting their children play unsupervised in local parks?

Very often today, it is assumed that a parent who does let their child go out and about is a bad parent. Simon Knight, a senior community learning and development worker for a Scottish local authority and director of the campaign group Generation Youth Issues, tells me: ‘This is the basis on which much government policy is founded….. Almost all state-sponsored youth work today is about getting children off the streets. Isn’t it ironic? In the name of combating anti-social behaviour, people, in jobs much like my own, are charged with acting like the child catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and tasked with clearing children off the streets – the very place where they learn to be social in the first place.’

On the one hand, youth workers are tasked with clearing kids from public spaces – on the other hand, parents are chastised for not letting their kids go out in public on their own. This says a lot about the screwed-up approach to children today.

Apparently, it is not only adults who pose a risk to children. Other children can destroy lives as well, parents are frequently told. Government officials, teachers’ unions, charities and, yes, the media warn about the dangers of bullying – which they claim can damage children for life, giving rise to socially inadequate and depressed adults.

As a consequence of today’s bullying obsession, teachers are encouraged to intervene in every little playground spat. More and more everyday childhood activities – from namecalling to group exclusion – are being lumped together with acts of violence as examples of the ‘bullying’ that is apparently rampant in our schools. The National Association of Head Teachers advises teachers always to take the word of the child claiming to be bullied – partly in order to avoid being sued for not taking action. One of Britain’s most expensive state schools, Thomas Deacon City Academy in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, is even being built without a playground. Staff claim that this will avoid a situation where pupils fall victim to playground bullies. Miles Delap, project manager at the academy, said: ‘For a school of this size, a playground would have had to be huge. That would have been almost uncontrollable. We have taken away an uncontrollable space to prevent bullying and truancy.’ (4)

It beggars belief. Such is the panic about bullying today that a school is denying children the ability to play freely – where they might make friends and develop interpersonal skills – in the name of protecting them from bullies. Such a strategy is likely to be far more damaging to children than the occasional argument or even kick or punch.

Thankfully, not many schools are abandoning breaktime completely. But breaktimes are being eroded in the name of combating bullying. In most schools, adults are put on guard at all times to make sure no children are being picked on. But is it necessarily in children’s interest to have adults intervening to help resolve every dispute? By having a zero tolerance approach to bullying, could we be denying children the experiences they need to develop? Peter Blatchford, professor of psychology and education at the Institute of Education in London, points out that some teasing serves a social purpose. He says it helps ‘to denote limits…define and consolidate friendships, [show] off sharpness in social discourse, and [jostle] for status. Pupils showed that considerable skill could be required in determining what form of teasing was appropriate with particular people.’ (5)

The Children’s Society inquiry found that in response to the question ‘If you need help with a problem, who is the person you are most likely to talk to?’, children were most likely to go to their friends (46 per cent), followed by a parent (35 per cent). The report concluded: ‘Having friends helps children to develop a sense of identity and social belonging and to learn a sense of “everyday morality” in the way they treat others.’ (6) The author of one of the submissions to the inquiry argued that, considering the importance of friendship to children, maybe there should be a re-evaluation of the purpose of education and teacher training in terms of ‘the ability to promote co-operation and friendship between students’. This misses the point. Children cannot be taught, in the abstract, about how to make friends. It is through unsupervised play – through conflict and cooperation – that children are given the opportunity to develop friendships and to build up relationships of trust.

Research has shown that there is often more conflict between friends than between peers in general. Children use friendship to test boundaries and explore what is appropriate and acceptable behaviour. When I went to pick up my four-year-old niece, Maja, from her nursery during a visit in Norway last week, and asked her if I could meet her best friend, Irene, I was sulkily told no, because they were ‘uvenner’ (Norwegian for ‘not friends’). Apparently, Irene had thrown two stones at Maja and when Maja picked up a stone to throw back, Irene declared that she no longer wanted to be her friend. Of course Maja thought the whole episode was very unfair, as she hadn’t even thrown a stone. Yet by the time I had finished my 10-minute tour of the nursery, Irene had given Maja a bouquet of dandelions and they were best friends again. As her nursery teacher told me, they frequently fall out, but they always make up again.

Children will often end up in disputes with their friends – disputes that can be a lot more upsetting than the tiff between Maja and Irene. But through conflict and argument, they gain a better understanding of what they can expect from each other. So the formation of childhood friendships will inevitably involve both intimacy and trust, as well as tension and conflict.

It is understandable that adults want to intervene when they feel children are misbehaving. But it may not necessarily be the best thing to do in all circumstances. Of course adults need to set boundaries. When a child is clearly being scared witless by other children, adult intervention is necessary. But the boundaries need to be very carefully drawn and applied, if the benefits of play are not to be undermined.

Tim Gill, a writer and consultant on childhood and former director of the UK Children’s Play Council, astutely argues: ‘One problem for adults is that children’s play is not always about nice warm-glow things like building sandcastles, climbing to the top of the spacenet or making chocolate chip cookies. Sometimes it’s about destroying someone else’s sandcastle, fighting for the right to get to the top of the net or stealing those cookies…. Play involves all of the emotions, not just the ones we normally see as positive.’ (7)

According to Gill, children can only learn to express feelings and recognise the feelings of others – and understand the difference between mock anger and real anger – ‘if they are given the chance to practice them. A lot. And much of what looks to adults like bad behaviour is simply children practising, getting the hang of all these skills.’ 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 they need the experiences that will help them develop their social skills.

For those concerned about the future wellbeing of today’s generation of children, let us stop having a go at parents, castigating them for everything they do. It would be more constructive to counter all of the various initiatives – which are often government-led – which undermine our trust in other adults and children. Free from such scaremongering and hectoring advice and tellings-off from the authorities, parents might learn to trust each other more, and let their children play.

Dr Helene Guldberg is managing editor at spiked. She has a PhD in developmental psychology and is an associate lecturer in child development at the Open University.

Previously on spiked

Jenny Cunningham said children should play on. Helene Guldberg said child safety has its own dangers and asked if childhood should come with a health warning. Stuart Waiton said the UK government was tying teenagers down. Or read more at spiked issue Parents and kids.

(1) See Young ‘not allowed out to play’, BBC News, 5 June 2007

(2) Too Safe for Their Own Good: How Risk and Responsibility Help Teens Thrive by Michael Ungar, McClelland & Stewart (2007)

(3) See The case against vetting by Josie Appleton

(4) See School without play area bans break times, Daily Telegraph, 10 May 2007

(5) ‘The state of play in schools’ by Peter Blatchford in Making Sense of Social Development (edited by Martin Woodhead, Dorothy Faulkner and Karen Littleton)

(6) See p.5 in the evidence summary of The Good Childhood Inquiry

(7) See Childhood freedoms and adult fears: Growing up in a risk-averse society by Tim Gill

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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