Robbing kids of their childhood and teaching parents to panic
Let children be children and adults be adults, says Frank Furedi
Since my son Jacob was born almost three years ago, I have been reminded constantly that a life of peril begins at birth. At the hospital nurses were quick to explain the security arrangements made to thwart baby snatchers. Other experts were forthcoming with the latest cot death advice. One doctor informed us that an X-ray indicated a very small possibility that something was wrong with Jacob's kidneys. When pressed for further clarification, the doctor stated - in confidence - that he had only mentioned it to cover himself against future litigation. When we got home we were bombarded with leaflets and more professional advice on how to keep our baby safe from harm. Within a matter of one week we were fully informed about the countless risks which apparently threatened our son.
Time and again I am reminded that children are now regarded as a kind of endangered species. The veritable army of professionals staffing the child protection industry takes every opportunity to promote the message that children are permanently at risk. Safety campaigns around everything from child abuse and cot death to stranger danger and sunbathing all reinforce the belief that childhood is a uniquely dangerous experience. With all of this helpful information and advice, it is easy to forget that children are safer and healthier than ever before.
This summer it was announced that home secretary Jack Straw plans to issue safety packs to parents, advising them how to protect their children from paedophiles. The packs, to be drawn up in cooperation with child safety charities, will 'advise parents not to let their children play alone in quiet places, suggest ages at which they might be allowed to run errands alone, and tell parents how they can vet people who work with children' ('Parents told not to let children play alone', Independent, 20 July 1998). 'Supervise young children at all times', warns a leaflet on playing in the garden published by the Child Accident Prevention Trust. This message is echoed weekly by numerous campaigns on child safety. Predictably, parents have become increasingly paranoid about their children's safety. Surveys reveal a permanent sense of unease among parents about possible risks facing children in public places.
The transformation of child protection into an industry has had a devastating impact on parenting and the quality of children's lives. Anxious parents have become more and more reluctant to allow their children the space and the freedom that previous generations took for granted.
Parental concern for the security of children has fundamentally changed the meaning of childhood. It is increasingly rare to see children roaming free with friends or walking to and from school. The proportion of junior schoolchildren that are allowed to cross the road on their own has halved between 1971 and 1990. When, on average, a British schoolgirl walks for less than seven minutes a day, it becomes evident that something has gone seriously wrong.
One unfortunate consequence of the contemporary panic with outdoor safety is the consensus that it is wrong to allow children to spend time on their own. If a child is left to play unsupervised it is now seen as a sign of 'neglect'. Indeed the very idea of unsupervised children's activity - which used to be called play - is now defined by child professionals as a risk. Those who question the merits of the constant supervision of children are accused of reckless parenting. Parents who allow their children to walk to school unsupervised can often become the subject of local gossip. Parental responsibility is increasingly associated with the willingness to supervise and chaperone children. 'Good parenting' now seems to mean protecting children from the experience of life.
The restriction on children's outdoor activity has predictable effects on their development. Numerous reports on children's health have warned about the negative consequences of their sedentary lives. Research has linked the decline in British children's fitness to the decrease in the amount of time they spend walking and cycling. The first national Travel Survey reported a fall of about 20 per cent in the annual distance walked and 27 per cent in the distance cycled between 1985 and 1993. The possible link between this decline in physical activity and the increasing trend towards obesity has been noted in the medical press.
Parental paranoia impacts on the very quality of childhood. Supervised play is virtual play. Children need to play on their own, and unsupervised activity is crucial for their development. Some of the most character-forming childhood experiences occur in peer-to-peer situations. Such unsupervised opportunities have allowed children to make mistakes, to learn from them, and to acquire important social skills.
For children to become responsible they have to learn to make decisions for themselves, something they can never do under a parent's watchful eye. Robbing children of their unsupervised activity hinders the development of their life skills. Why? Because when children are with adults they tend to remain 'childish' at precisely the time when they need to learn to grow up.
The current emphasis on creating a risk-free environment, where children's play can always be structured and supervised, is unlikely to stimulate initiative and enterprise. Probably the greatest casualty of this totalitarian regime of safety is the development of a child's potential. Playing, imagining and even getting into trouble contribute to that unique sense of adventure which has helped society forge ahead. A community that loses that sense of adventure and ambition does so at its peril; and yet that is where we can end up if socialising children consists, above all, of filling them with a fear of life.
So what is behind the panic? The level of parental paranoia has little to do with any increase in the real dangers facing children. And while numerous child protection organisations acknowledge that anxiety over children's safety has reached unprecedented levels to the detriment of both children and parents, they have little to say about its causes. This is not surprising, since they bear considerable responsibility for this tragic development.
Initiatives like the New Labour government's National Family and Parenting Institute can only serve to undermine the confidence of fathers and mothers in their ability to parent, reinforcing the notion that we all need outside professional help in order to cope with the basics of bringing up children. The paradox is that this professionalisation of child-rearing infantilises parents, who in turn end up treating their offspring as an endangered species.
The growth of the child protection industry has helped to transform parenting from a routine experience into something which is seen as a highly complex skill. As a result, every dimension of parenting has been turned into a problem. Even before a child is born parents are encouraged to study parent-craft skills. Every aspect of conceiving, bearing and raising children is subject to professional advice since, the experts agree, child-rearing is too important a task to leave to parents. Caring professionals now provide 'education for fatherhood' and run parenting workshops all over the place. These experts continually emphasise the 'difficulties' and 'complications' of parenthood. It is now widely assumed that parents are too incompetent to talk to their children about sex and other highly charged issues without an advice pack, a helpline or a counsellor on hand.
Raising children used to be seen as a routine expectation of what it meant to be an adult. Now parenting has been transformed into a skill. The implication is that, left to their own resources, most mothers and fathers are unlikely to cope today. Health minister Tessa Jowell now says that she wants the health, social services and education departments to intervene together 'to give children the best start in life'. The clear message is that a child left to be brought up by its parents is getting second best.
Child professionals continually inflate the problem of parenting. Everyday tasks are continually represented as difficult and complicated 'skills'. It appears that parents are too stupid to discuss sex and other emotional subjects with their children. And since parenting has been transformed from an intimate relationship, involving emotion and warmth, into a skill, involving technical expertise, the role of the expert assumes a special significance. From this perspective, the solution proposed is to take parenting out of the family so that enlightened professionals can put things right.
Those like the government who advocate parental training justify their proposal on the grounds that it helps to empower otherwise confused adults. In fact, despite the claims of empowerment, this approach can only have the effect of further undermining parents' confidence in their abilities. It is difficult to get on and parent when child-rearing has been mystified and recast as a skill. No doubt it has been assumed that all this professional advice and intervention would lead to a more confident and informed generation of proud new parents. Instead it seems that today's parents are more insecure and unconfident than their own parents ever were.
The reason why the professionalisation of family life weakens the effectiveness of parents is because the relationship it tries to regulate cannot be reduced to a series of skills. A relationship between a parent and child is a qualitative one which cannot be improved through the intervention of technical experts. Such intervention can, however, undermine the integrity of the parent-child relationship. When professionals encroach on this relationship it necessarily weakens the authority of parents. And parents with weak authority are unlikely to become confident at handling their children.
The attempt to professionalise family life rests on the bureaucratic conviction that, because parenting has got to be learned, it must also be taught. This misguided approach fails to grasp the elementary relationship between human experience and learning. There are many things in life that we learn in our own way through experience. Confident parents learn from their experiences of life. Such lessons cannot be created through a course drawn up by a social work or healthcare professional. These courses only foster a climate where the parent develops a relation of dependence on professional advice.
To make matters worse, child professionals do not merely give advice. They intrude into parents' lives and undermine their confidence. Recently, when my wife took Jacob to his nursery and explained that he had bruised himself falling over, one of the staff joked that social services would have to be informed. Everybody laughed - if a bit nervously. Afterwards, one of the mothers whispered to my wife, 'Amy had two bruises last week - you have no idea how nervous I was in case people jumped to the wrong conclusion'. This exchange of confidences is symptomatic of the temper of our times. Parental anxiety is not confined to the actual wellbeing of their children. It extends to a preoccupation with how the parents are seen by faceless professionals. Something has clearly gone seriously wrong when parents live in fear that the most innocent incident can be interpreted as malign and lead to intrusive enquiries from nosy officials.
The professionalisation of parenting is damaging to children and parents alike. The fundamental question it raises is this: who knows what is in the best interests of children? Today, the authority of the expert overwhelms the claims of competent parents. It is an authority that feeds on inflating problems and provoking panics about every aspect of childhood. It is an authority that actively fosters mistrust. Unfortunately mistrust produces more experts. And faced by a growing army of child professionals, parents are even less likely to trust themselves than before. In such circumstances, parents are quite entitled to panic about their children.
Play or neglect?
Reproduced from LM issue 113, September 1998