What our children really need is a regime of benign neglect

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The Independent Culture
PICTURE THIS. A man in his mid-thirties, bearded, wearing slightly scruffy jeans, is following two children of about eight and six down a suburban street. They are oblivious to their pursuer - if they seem on the point of turning round to look, he ducks out of sight into a garden. The little convoy turns around the corner. What do you see? A potential child molester tracking his next victims? Actually, it was my neighbour following his children the first time they were allowed to the corner shop by themselves, making sure they were safe crossing the road.

We parents labour under a huge burden of worry about our kids in the modern world of car accidents, child abductions and murders, and careless or even violent childminders. No wonder concerned dads follow their offspring around the corner. No wonder mums ferry the kids to school in their four- wheel drive, all but armour-plated vehicles, accounting for two-thirds of the rush hour congestion in our towns and cities.

Reports like yesterday's warning on "stranger danger" from the NSPCC can only fuel such parental fears. The charity's checklist of advice is actually completely sensible. But to link basic steps for safeguarding children to the annual toll of six children murdered by strangers each year, as it did, is to move from common sense to hysteria. And we are edging towards a state of mind out of proportion to the - very real - dangers.

The typical British response to a photograph of a smiling bare-chested man with a small child, recently shown to people in different countries in a survey, was that it must be a paedophile. Italians were far more likely to see it as father and son.

This is the climate which has led to an entirely serious proposal to tag small children in supermarket creches, employing an extension of the scanning technology used to keep track of goods on the shelves. The supermarket concerned clearly believes parents will welcome it, and will be more likely to shop at its stores.

In fact, everywhere you look there are new plans to monitor and control children ever more closely. Even the suggestion that Ofsted - the schools inspectorate run by Chris Woodhead - should be responsible for monitoring nurseries and playgroups and even childminders falls into this category. In making the school inspectorate responsible for these, the Government makes it plain that it thinks of early years care and education as essentially the same thing. Every hour of our children's time must be observed and must be productive.

When does this obsession with monitoring childcare spill over from an entirely understandable and commendable concern for children's safety into molly-coddling that undermines their ability to learn how to fend for themselves, or, worse, exercise control of their behaviour? After all, Jeremy Bentham's vision of the perfect utilitarian prison was one where the warder could spy at any time on the activities of any prisoner, like a malign spider at the centre of a web.

Our increasingly controlling and utilitarian vision of childhood explains the urge to educate at an earlier and earlier age. Nurseries and schools are in danger of being turned into knowledge factories in which our toddlers are the means of production, transforming gobbets of knowledge into increased national output. The people who care for them, chosen by parents on the basis of trust, will become subject to an authoritarian official inspection regime. The figure of the government inspector is not, in general, a loved or even respected one. The bureaucrat with powers over other people's jobs is all too often a petty tyrant.

This is taking the idea of the nanny state all too literally. Obviously a balance has to be struck. We must take care to keep our children safe, to educate them well, even ensure they are happy. The Government has to set minimum standards for childcare. Parents have to take all sensible precautions. And we must accept that there are bad carers and bad parents and bad people out there.

But there are costs to micro-managing every detail of children's lives. All those of us who are adults today will have experienced a much freer childhood than our own kids do now. We wandered around alone, caught buses and were sent to the shops at a younger age. We got into scrapes, or even danger. We learnt to cope.

Now we are trying to teach our own children to cope at the same time as trying to preserve them from taking any of the risks they are meant to learn to handle. I don't believe it is possible. Experience can not be taught. They will have to cope later, and they will do so less well. This is not to argue sentimentally in favour of the school of hard knocks, but rather to point out that disappointment lies in store in any attempt to escape this trade-off between providing children with perfect safety and giving them the experiences that will teach them to protect themselves. It is an inescapable pain of parenthood that you can not do everything for your children.

In fact, the best principle to apply in steering them safely towards adulthood is probably one of benign neglect. The great liberal Democratic senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan suggested this approach to America's race policy in the years immediately after the civil rights era. The basic legal framework in place, the best thing to do was allow people to take advantage of it in their own way and own time, he concluded.

Benign neglect will work for children, in a sound framework of law and regulation. They are not little widgets in the national production line. Education is important and fantastic, but it is just one part of life. A good child minder or nursery assistant will have completely different strengths and aptitudes from a good teacher. They need to be assessed in an entirely different way, not by the increasingly Dickensian figure of the Ofsted inspector.

Clearly the extension of Ofsted's role in watching the watchers, at the expense of local authority social services, is a response to the many failures of the latter. However, even though there is a genuine problem to be solved, the switch is yet another centralisation, and another expression of the Government's distrust of anything not under its direct control. Yet extra government control is never going to be complete control, the underlying desire revealed by the change.

As a teenager I kept a notebook in which I listed all the laws I would pass to make the country a better place when I was running it. Luckily for the country, I gave up my youthful ambition to pursue a career in politics. But you get the impression many members of the present government were equally obnoxious as adolescents and, worse, have kept their notebooks.

The message in the new policy, like the message in warnings of stranger danger, is the same for parents and children alike. It is don't trust anybody because nobody trusts you. What a sad and dangerous country Britain has become.