Children are at risk - from their terrified parents

Frank Furedi on the implications of last week's report on mental illness in the young

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IT IS just possible that we are beginning to understand the terrible price that children are paying for society's obsession with their safety. A study commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation reported last week that children are failing to thrive emotionally and find it increasingly difficult to cope with the demands of everyday life. June McKerrow, the director of the foundation, stated that children have become closeted by obsessive parents, who allow them little opportunity to take risks and to learn from their mistakes. "Children must be able to plan and take control, they must be allowed to try things and be free to experiment so that they develop their own abilities to solve problems," noted Ms McKerrow.

Her warning will resonate with many parents, and even more with grandparents, who can't believe how mollycoddled their own grandchildren are. The truth is that British society behaves as though children were an endangered species. The child safety industry uses every opportunity to promote its central message: that children are permanently at risk from danger. Campaigns centred on a variety of subjects - child abuse, cot death, roving paedophiles, sunbathing - all reinforce the belief that childhood is a particularly dangerous experience. In fact, children are safer and healthier then ever before. Despite all the publicity about "stranger danger", for example, the number of children murdered by strangers has remained static at around 6 per year over the past 50 years. Half as many children per 100,000 are killed in road accidents every year as in 1922. In the past half century child deaths by accidents have fallen by a quarter.

The transformation of child protection into an industry has had a devastating impact on the quality of children's lives. "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 ever more paranoid about their children's safety. Surveys reveal a permanent sense of unease among parents about possible risks facing children in public places. 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 with safety has led to the reorganisation of childhood. Just William would never make it in today's world. Roaming about the neighbourhood with friends or walking to and from school are becoming increasingly rare experiences for children.

The proportion of junior school children who are allowed to cross the road on their own has halved during the past 25 years. On average, a British schoolgirl walks for less than 7 minutes a day. Those who question the merits of the constant supervision of children are sometimes accused of being reckless parents. In some communities, parents who allow their children to walk to school unsupervised become the subject of local gossip.

Parental paranoia has damaging consequences. Children should be allowed to play on their own: unsupervised activity - where children can test their limits independently of an adult framework - is crucial for their development. They should be allowed to make mistakes, and to learn from them. Children have to learn to make decisions for themselves, something they can never do under a parent's watchful eye. They need street cred. Supervising children, cocooning them, can seriously damage their social health. Why? Because when children are with adults they tend to remain "childish" at precisely the time when they need to learn to grow up.

Probably the greatest casualty of the totalitarian regime of safety is the development of children's potential. Playing, imagining and even getting into trouble contribute to the sense of adventure which has helped society forge ahead. A community which loses that sense of adventure and ambition does so at its peril, and yet that is precisely what may happen when socialising children consists, above all, of inculcating fears in them.

The consensus that children are uniquely vulnerable and fragile creatures is so strong that even critical voices often remain trapped in it. Sadly, last week's Mental Health Foundation study exacerbates the problem that it seeks to address. The report claims that children have become intensely susceptible to mental illness. So now neurotically anxious parents have a new fear: not only are their children prey to dangerous drivers, threatening strangers, unsafe toys and food, and a variety of new syndromes and physical diseases; they are also at risk of losing their minds. The report's claim that one out of five children suffers mental stress is based on reinterpreting difficult behaviour as medical conditions. Diagnosing children's behavioural problems is a notoriously subjective affair. One person's noisy child is another's victim of mental stress. By inflating the meaning of mental illness to include common behavioural problems, the report contributes towards the "diseasing" or "pathologising" of childhood. There was a time when difficult behaviour was seen as an inevitable feature of the process of growing up. Today, child professionals interpret childhood behaviour from the prism of psychology. The more promiscuous they are with inventing new medical labels, the more the number of mentally ill children increases.

Health professionals, social workers and therapists cannot resist the temptation to continually expand the range of pathologies suffered by children. Instead of bad behaviour, children's action is increasingly explained through a medical diagnostic category. So noisy, disobedient and troublesome children are represented as suffering from an illness that requires new-fangled medical intervention rather than old- fashioned discipline. There has been an explosion in the discovery of so-called hidden syndromes and disorders that apparently afflict children. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) competes with a variety of so-called learning disabilities as the fashionable condition suffered by children. A growing number of youngsters now define themselves as disabled. A recent government survey reported that between 1985 and 1996 there has been an astounding increase of 155 per cent in the number of 16- to 19- year-olds who define themselves as disabled.

It is not just the child-safety industry that preys on parent's anxieties. Politicians seem convinced that they have an indispensable role in protecting children by dreaming up policies on the family. The politicisation of the family and the professionalisation of parenting undermine the confidence of parents. By treating adults as children, government intervention helps to foster a climate where parents find it difficult to act as adults. It is this infantilisation of adulthood which has ensured that obsessive behaviour has become the predominant style of British parents.

Frank Furedi is a sociologist at the University of Kent in Canterbury. He is the author of `The Culture of Fear'.

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