Our children are in trouble. This article by Mark Easton appeared on the BBC News website recently …
Rearing children in captivity
At the school gates of Birchington Primary School, on the Kent coast, a group of mothers chat about their childhood.
"I used to go to the woods and build a den," said one.
"I would always go to the park on my own, just so long as I was back before dark," said a second. The other mums nodded.
All remembered the adventures of their youth - long days spent out of sight of their parents. "Happy days," they said.
So do they let their own children enjoy the same freedoms? "That would be irresponsible," replied one. The rest agreed. The furthest they would allow their youngsters to roam alone was to the garden gate.
What has happened in the last 30 years or so? The risk of abduction remains tiny. In Britain, there are now half as many children killed every year in road accidents as there were in 1922 - despite a more than 25-fold increase in traffic.
In 1970, 80% of primary school-age children made the journey from home to school on their own. It was what you did. Today the figure is under 9%. Escorting children is now the norm.
We are rearing our children in captivity - their habitat shrinking almost daily. In 1970 the average nine-year-old girl would have been free to wander 840 metres from her front door. By 1997 it was 280 metres. Now the limit appears to have come down to the front doorstep.
In a garden in Birchington, best friends Holly Prentice and Jojo Roberts, both aged eight, make daisy chains. The picket fence marks the limit of their play area. They wouldn't dare venture beyond it.
"You might get kidnapped or taken by a stranger," says Jojo.
"In the park you might get raped," agrees Holly.
Don't they yearn to go off to the woods, to climb trees and get muddy? No, they tell me. The woods are scary. Climbing trees is dangerous. Muddy clothes get you in trouble. One wonders what they think of Just William, Swallows And Amazons or The Famous Five - fictional tales of strange children from another time, an age of adventures where parents apparently allowed their offspring to be out all day and didn't worry about a bit of mud.
There is increasing concern that today's "cotton-wool kids" are having their development hampered. They are likely to be risk-averse, stifled by fears which are more phobic than real. Their lack of unsupervised play may also reduce the opportunity to form deep friendships in early years.
Evidence presented to the Children's Society's Good Childhood Inquiry suggested the number of teenagers who don't have a best friend has risen from one in eight 20 years ago to one in five today. Professor Judith Dunn, from the Institute of Psychiatry, chairs the Good Childhood Inquiry and believes that friendships are vital for a child's social and emotional development. "Children whose early friendships are full of shared imaginative play develop a sensibility by discussing moral dilemmas and learning to understand the feelings, welfare and relationships of other children," she argues.
A lack of close friendships among British children may be reflected in a recent Unicef report which revealed that the UK ranks at the bottom for peer relationships in international tables.
And the horrifying story of four-year-old Madeleine McCann, apparently abducted from her bed in Portugal while her parents ate a meal in a nearby restaurant, is likely to mean British parents pull their children even closer to them.
Meanwhile, children losing sleep over global warming. Half of children between the ages of seven and 11 are anxious about the effects of global warming and often lose sleep over it, according to a new report.
A survey of 1,150 youngsters found that one in four blamed politicians for the problems of climate change, while one in seven said their own parents were not doing enough to improve the environment.
The most feared consequences of global warming included poor health, the possible submergence of entire countries and the welfare of animals. Most of those polled in the survey by supermarket chain Somerfield understood the benefits of recycling - although one in ten thought it was linked to riding a bike.
Pete Williams, of Somerfield, said: "Kids are exposed to the hard facts as much as anybody. While many adults may look the other way, this study should show that global warming is not only hurting the children of the future, it's affecting the welfare of kids now."
Still, it's nice to know that our beleaguered kids have someone looking out for them. Joanna Williams, a researcher at Canterbury Christ Church University with three young children, recently wrote …
They pose as the chummy cohorts of mums and dads. Yet family liaison officers in British schools are undermining teachers and keeping a suspicious eye on parents.
The first time I heard mention of the school family liaison officer was when, in the morning rush of dropping our children off at school, a close friend tearfully confided that she had been 'asked' by the headteacher to 'have a chat' with the family liaison officer. Two days later and another friend revealed exactly the same news. Who was this family liaison officer to make two of my friends, both with bright, healthy, much-loved children, somehow feel they had 'failed' at being good parents?
British parents are going to have to get used to them. If your local school doesn't have a family liaison officer, it will soon. The exact job description of officers is difficult to pin down; they are often presented in recruitment adverts as neutral mediators between teachers and parents, helping families in 'accessing relevant information'. Allison Shepherd, the family liaison officer at a school in Thanet, Kent, describes her role as being 'to provide support, help, friendship and act as a link between families and school'. Jo Green from a primary school in Folkestone is similarly friendly: 'My job is to help you. Should you be having personal problems or school related problems I am here as your listening ear.'
Behind the chummy 'I just want to be your friend' image, the role of the family liaison officer is to work with the parents of children considered to be at risk due to child protection concerns or at risk of social exclusion. They will work with the parents of children who truant or misbehave as well as parents with poor literacy and numeracy skills.
The aim of providing 'parenting and family support' was first raised in the UK government's Green Paper, Every Child Matters, which was published in September 2003 in response to the investigation into the murder of eight-year-old Victoria Climbié by her aunt and her aunt's boyfriend in London in 2000. Every Child Matters argues for the need for 'specialist parenting support', involving a range of home visiting programmes to teach parents how to best support their child's development, and parent education programmes to provide training in 'behavioural techniques'.
The message to emerge from Every Child Matters is that parents need to be monitored and taught how to behave if they are not to be a potential risk to their own children. Rejecting the friendly advances and offers of support from the family liaison officer may be enough to mark your child out as being 'at risk' in which case 'compulsory action' could be taken in the form of Parenting Orders.
The role of the family liaison officer may be presented as a means of protecting children considered to be at risk through supporting families, but the effect of such liaison serves only to undermine families at every stage. By stressing so emphatically that families need help to carry out the everyday demands of parenting (the word 'support' appears 176 times in Every Child Matters), the implication is that families do not do a good enough job when left to their own devices.
Both of my friends were asked to chat with the family liaison officer after their children got into fairly minor playground scraps. The very fact of being asked to discuss these incidents with a professional suggests, firstly, that children kicking each other in the dinner queue is something shockingly bad that requires intervention from at least five adults and, secondly, that it is something parents cannot be trusted to deal with on their own.
Presumably, within the context of much agonising as to why the child should demonstrate such behaviour, the family liaison officer will make some clichéd suggestion such as 'reward their good behaviour' or 'put them on the naughty step'. At issue is not the value of the advice but the fact that by not allowing parents to work out these things for themselves, their confidence is undermined and the autonomy of the family unit is called into question.
Furthermore, having family liaison officers based in schools undermines the authority of teachers in dealing with unruly pupils. In the not-too-distant past, such a trivial incident as kicking a child in the dinner queue would have been dealt with by the class teacher, if it were actually deemed worthy of being dealt with at all. Go back a couple of years further and any sensible adult would have laughed at the notion of getting involved. Parents trusted teachers to deal with such minor offences.
Parents also trusted teachers to get on with the job of educating their children. Far from family liaison officers freeing up more time for teachers to spend on education, they will require paperwork referrals to be completed and formal mediation meetings to be attended. Teachers are no longer limited to the role of educating children but are expected to extend their responsibilities to an assessment of how well the children in their class are being brought up. The purpose of the school becomes renegotiated away from the academic education of the child to the social (re)education of the whole family.
Family liaison officers suggest teachers cannot sort out minor breaches of discipline by pupils and that parents and teachers cannot communicate with each other without the need for someone else to 'mediate'. Formalising relationships between parents and teachers with the presumed necessity for third party mediation does nothing at all to help protect children. Far too much time is taken up with the dinner-queue-kickers who are neither a risk to others or at risk themselves. The informal end-of-the-day conversations in the school playground, where teachers and parents can pass on any concerns to each other, suddenly take on a new complexion if the parent fears anything they say may be reported to the family liaison officer.
Let's not forget that the role of the family liaison officer originated from the police service where their aim is to mediate with families in order to better secure convictions. The introduction of such policing techniques in schools heralds unprecedented interference into the autonomy of families - rather than supporting families this serves only to undermine them. Parents, when asked to meet with the family liaison officer, will only become less confident in their own ability to bring up their children as they see fit. This cannot possibly be to the benefit of the child. The best way for schools to support families is to leave them alone and concentrate on the job of educating their children.
The GOS says: The good thing is that these coddled, worried, guilty children aren't children for very long. They soon grow up into coddled, worried, guilty adults like the rest of us.
And never forget …
At the age of 4, success is not peeing in your pants.
At the age of 12, success is having friends.
At the age of 17, success is having a driver's licence.
At the age of 20, success is having sex.
At the age of 35, success is having money.
At the age of 50, success is having money.
At the age of 60, success is having sex.
At the age of 70, success is having a driver's licence.
At the age of 75, success is having friends.
At the age of 80, success is not peeing in your pants.
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