Frank Furedi is one of the clearest thinkers in the academic world and we have quoted him many times before. Here he is writing on Spiked about the modern vogue for parent-bashing and wrapping kids in cotton-wool …
All the main political parties in Britain seem convinced that government should assume the role of a supernanny and train mothers and fathers to be responsible parents. Former UK children's minister Margaret Hodge is unapologetic about this idea, arguing that government has a `powerful' role to play in family life.
Parent-bashing is not confined to the domain of politics. Back in 2001, hectoring parents about their inability to manage their children's behaviour or to provide their kids with a nutritious diet had not yet become a popular way to entertain the public. There were no TV shows such as Supernanny or The House of Tiny Tearaways to remind parents of their congenital defects on the childrearing front. Over the past five or six years, however, the notion that parental incompetence is quite normal, even widespread, has become deeply entrenched - especially in the TV schedules. One intelligent 36-year-old mother wrote to me recently: `I know it exploits my emotions, I know that I should not watch these shows - but I do, even though they make me feel shit.' Sadly, the images and arguments that haunt her imagination have been embraced by significant sections of British society.
The perpetual politicisation of parenting has two destructive outcomes. The constant labelling of parenting as some kind of `problem' undermines the confidence of mothers and fathers. Although the target audience of politicians is a minority of so-called dysfunctional parents, the depressing message our leaders communicate about the problems of childrearing has a disorienting impact on everybody. Consequently, the numerous helpful initiatives designed to `support' parents do anything but reassure us - they simply encourage the public to become even more paranoid about parenting. The second regrettable outcome of the politicisation of childrearing is that it has intensified our sense of insecurity and anxiety about virtually every aspect of children's lives and experiences.
At the turn of this century, it was evident that children had become subject to an obsessive culture of childrearing. At the time, Paranoid Parenting documented the growing tendency to extend adult supervision into every aspect of children's lives. It was apparent that `outdoors' had become a no-go area for many youngsters, and that the majority of parents did not even allow their offspring to walk to school on their own.
The idea that children were too vulnerable to be allowed to take risks had already become entrenched. Many readers of my book shared with me their hope that the regime of child protection would gradually give way to more relaxed and balanced attitudes. Little did they suspect that paranoia towards the safety of children was about to expand even further and encompass even children's experiences that it had hitherto not touched.
Who would have imagined that British children would be prevented from pursuing the age-old custom of conkering? Many adults were rightly shocked and bemused when a few local authorities introduced a new policy of `tree management': a euphemism for preventing children from climbing on chestnut trees or playing with conkers. More than any other bans introduced in subsequent years, the attempt to discourage children from playing with chestnuts symbolised the relentless drive to diminish young people's experience of the outdoors. At the time, many people sneered at the busybodies who decided that children were not fit to go near conkers. Today, however, when local authorities chop the branches off horse chestnut trees to save children from this terrible danger there is barely a murmur of protest.
In recent years, banning children from activities that appear remotely adventurous has become an institution of British political life. It seems that kids are so feeble that we must protect them from everything. Earlier this month, a teacher informed me that children in her school are actively discouraged from running around or playing ball games during break time. Her rationale for promoting this anti-activity ethos was that `someone could easily get hurt'.
Traditional children's games are disappearing because experts claim that they are too dangerous. Some primary schools have banned tag during break time, while some have got rid of contact sports. In January 2007, Burnham Grammar School banned impromptu football in order to prevent young people being hit by stray balls. The headteachers argued that pupils were `kicking balls quite hard at each other'. In February 2007, St John's primary near Lincoln banned games like kiss chase and tag because staff felt that such activities were too rough.
Suspicion towards adult motives has become a pathology in British society. Numerous informal rules have been introduced to prevent adults from coming into direct physical contact with kids. Even nursery workers feel that their actions are under constant scrutiny. Adult carers have not been entirely banned from applying suncream to children; some still follow their human instinct and do what they believe is in the best interest of the child. But frequently, such practices require formal parental consent: it is now commonplace for nurseries and schools to send out letters to parents asking for their signed consent to allow teachers to put suncream on their child.
Some schools would rather that teachers had no physical contact with their pupils at all, and insist that either the parent or the child applies the suncream. Schools now state in their handbooks for parents that `it is most helpful if children are able to apply their own suncream'! Some nurseries have sought to get around this problem by asking their employees to use sprays rather than to rub suncream on children's bodies. One former nursery worker told me she packed in her job after she was `banned' from taking the kids in her care to the toilet on her own.
There is now an informal ban on adults taking pictures of children. Although taking photos is not against the law, many petty officials have decided to take the law into their own hands. As a father, I resent the climate of hysteria that makes it difficult for parents to take photos of their children during school plays or concerts and sporting activities. I would love to have a shot of my son Jacob running with the ball, but after four years of competitive football I still don't have a single picture of him in action.
In January, a friend of mine who decided to take a photo of his son during a Saturday football match was accused of gross irresponsibility. He was lucky, however: the referee at least allowed the game to continue. There are numerous reports of officials stopping play when they spot a parent taking pictures. One referee stopped an under-15s match in Ashford and instructed both team managers to confiscate parents' cameras. `You can't take photographs, it's child protection', he lectured a parent.
When it comes to sport, many parents have given up on the idea of taking snapshots for the family album. They don't want to end up in the same predicament as a married couple who took pictures of a junior rugby game on a sports field in Surrey: they were detained by club officials and were later visited at home by the police.
The promotion of paranoia in relation to every aspect of children's lives accomplishes the very opposite of what it sets out to do. When youngsters are protected from risks, they miss out on important opportunities to learn sound judgments and build their confidence and resilience. The promotion of suspicion towards adult behaviour seriously undermines the ability of grown-up people to play a constructive role in the socialisation of youngsters. The estrangement of adults from the world of children has the perverse effect of leaving youngsters to their own devices and diminishing their security.
We do not have to abide by the rules concocted by self-appointed experts intent on policing how we engage with children. Nor do we have to acquiesce to a culture that denigrates parental competence and fuels suspicion about adult motives towards children. Although none of us can opt out of the culture that we inhabit, we can challenge it. We can challenge it in small ways, by protesting against the many idiotic but all-too-insidious bans that aim to restrict children's freedom or adults' access to youngsters. We can challenge it by encouraging our children to develop a positive attitude towards the outdoors and the adult world. Most important of all, we can challenge it by working together as active collaborators committed to providing more opportunities for children to explore their world.
The GOS says: As I grow older I find myself entering my second childhood, and have for some inexplicable reason been revisiting Arthur Ransome's "Swallows and Amazons" books. Set in the 1920s/1930s they feature a group of upper-middle-class children who spend their school holidays sailing, climbing, exploring and camping with little or no adult supervision.
Just imagine these adventures brought up-to-date. The children would be set upon by Elf'n'Safety "experts" requiring them to complete a risk assessment every time they set foot out of doors, and their mothers would be prosecuted for not supervising them properly. Roger, the youngest who is always hungry and has a deep and permanent yearning for chocolate, would be so obese that he'd be taken into care, his sister Titty would be suffering from mental abuse from having to cope with her name, and the Amazons' Uncle Jim who shares many of their adventures is clearly a paedophile.
Arthur Ransome, a fine writer of simple, clear English, was a pretty dodgy character himself. I mean, not only was he some sort of a spy in the First World War and married to Trotsky's secretary, but a grown man taking such an interest in the doings of children? Obviously a pervert. How long will it be before his works are removed from the shelves in the Children's Library?
Oh no, I forgot. There won't be any Children's Libraries soon. They'll all have been converted to Virtual Learning Centres, whatever they are.
We saw something deeply disturbing on TV the other day. Someone's had the idea that kids who perform badly in school should be taken off for days at a time and taught to go fishing. They claim it works wonders, but really … public money being squandered teaching kids to torture innocent little fish?
Meanwhile the Daily Mail carries this report …
A 10-year-old girl drew up a hit list of classmates and teachers she wanted to kill during a sinister death spree at her school, it has been revealed. The youngster named those who would be targeted when she carried out her death rampage in a note which was discovered by her teacher.
At the top of the handwritten page the girl begun by writing: 'When I go on my killing spree the victims are...' The McKinley Middle School, Wisconsin pupil went on to list 21 of her classmates and four teachers. Another list contained the names of four 'people I don't want 2 kill'. She included her own name.
Authorities launched an investigation and the youngster was interviewed by police along with her parents. But the girl, who has not been named for legal reasons, told investigators she was not serious about carrying out the death threats. She said she wrote the list 'because she was angry with some other students who accused her of spreading rumours'. She also said she was angry with teachers on the list 'because they ignore her when she raises her hand in class.'
The school suspended the girl pending a review of the incident but the headteacher has recommended that she should not be expelled.
The two most telling sentences in the report were "The teacher who seized the note told police that she now feared for her safety," and "The girl, who has no prior disciplinary problems, is likely to be charged with a misdemeanor offence by police."
What a world of wimpery we live in. Many years ago when I was a young teacher, I went to the rescue of a colleague who was being chased through the streets of Walthamstow by a mob of fourteen-year-old boys intent on doing him damage. The following day we were both back in the classroom. It never occurred to either of us to "fear for our safety".
Not a bad idea, though, is it, a hit-list for the forthcoming killing spree? I think I'll start with Bruce Forsyth …
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