Building a wall between adults and children
The vital interactions between one generation and the next are being hampered by overblown fears of ‘stranger danger’.
A few days ago, a group of school children dressed in uniforms got on the morning train I was on, all excited and chatting loudly. One of them sat down on the empty seat beside me, somewhat away from the others. Most of the passengers seemed to enjoy seeing the children and witnessing their excitement at getting out of school for the day, but there was no interaction with them and I continued to read my book.
But I was interrupted by the girl next to me, who told me: ‘I like your jacket.’ Surprised at this, I turned to her – she looked to be about 12 – and replied: ‘Thank you.’ She seemed to want to chat so I asked if the school was going on a trip and she confirmed that there were 60 pupils on the train, accompanied by teachers and other adults. She’d forgotten the name of the place where they were going, but she said they’d need to change trains and then catch a bus. She wasn’t entirely sure.
The girl told me that she was in her last year at primary school and was going to start at a ‘good’ secondary school nearby in September. She then asked me what I was reading and I told her a bit about the book. She wasn’t really interested in my response, so I asked where she was going to spend the school holidays. She was going to Albania for three weeks and was really looking forward to it. Her family goes there every year. She’d like to go to other places, too, she said, and I suggested that maybe she could when she grew up, had a job and money.
I recount this story in detail because these days it is unusual for an adult to have a conversation with a child they don’t know and it was a refreshing and pleasurable experience. But the really noteworthy thing is what happened next. A young woman, a teacher I assumed, approached us and told the girl to stop talking to me. Didn’t the girl remember that the school discourages children from talking to strangers?
I was flabbergasted but suggested to the teacher that by inference she didn’t trust me with the child. She denied it was anything personal, but that the children were told at school never to talk to people they didn’t know. I suggested that might be a problem but she reiterated that it was school policy. I suggested that maybe the school policy was wrong but she declined to respond, reiterated her instructions to the girl and walked away.
The girl and I sat in uncomfortable silence from then until her and the other children got off the train. I felt insulted, cheapened and angry by the exchange with the teacher. How has something as innocent and ordinary as talking to a school child been turned into a suspicious act?
I’m as aware as the next person of the ‘stranger danger’ obsession, and as a former health visitor I couldn’t but feel personally insulted by what the teacher said. I’ve worked with children and families for most of my life and I love kids. Of course I know this wasn’t a personal attack, but it hit home because it was so wrong.
It was astonishing that the young teacher had herself so absorbed the ‘stranger danger’ obsession that she felt confident to approach me, a woman old enough to be her mother, and indirectly tell me off. She felt no need to exercise discretion in view of the situation – the kids on an outing, a busy train, in full view of other passengers and teachers.
I was left wondering how these kids are ever going to learn how to interact with strangers, or how to assess situations for themselves and make nuanced judgements about other people? As a friend of mine told me on Facebook: ‘Our generation learned a lot as kids from adults in the wider community. They tolerated us hanging around and bugging them to show us how to do what they were doing. Unfortunately, this is almost impossible for most kids today and they suffer immeasurably as a result. As do we adults, because this vital inter-generational traffic is pretty much banned. Sadly, many teenagers are now shocked and affronted if you try to engage them in intelligent conversation.’
Raising and teaching children, while primarily a responsibility for parents and schools, is something that everyone should play a part in. In turn, adults need to communicate with children to understand the next generation. The communication between one generation and the next should not be shut down simply because of exaggerated fears about ‘stranger danger’.
Brid Hehir is a development manager for a charity and a former health service manager.
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