Parental paranoia is ruining children's lives

From a speech by Stuart Waiton, a Glasgow youth worker, given at the Edinburgh Book Festival as part of the Big Questions series


The recent hysteria around paedophiles is a disaster for children, who, rather than facing a life threatened by strangers and perverts, are far more at risk of having their life strangled out of them by being overprotected.

The recent hysteria around paedophiles is a disaster for children, who, rather than facing a life threatened by strangers and perverts, are far more at risk of having their life strangled out of them by being overprotected.

Today it is the norm for children to be taught - by parents, at school by teachers and also by visiting police officers - that they must never talk to strangers. But what sort of society are we creating that encourages children to view all adults as a danger?

Children must learn to relate to those around them - both children and adults, friends and enemies - if they are to develop socially and emotionally and become independent adults. However, at the moment, this once-normal part of growing-up is being undermined, as children's time is increasingly supervised by adults concerned for their safety.

The Government, many children's charities and local authorities are unfortunately promoting the idea that children are constantly "at risk", and appear to have as an organising principle the concept of "child safety". Little else matters, as long as children are seen to be safe.

The promotion of the child-safety message and the development of initiatives creating "safer schools", "safer streets" and "safer neighbourhoods" are helping to inflate the perceived risks that children face and further undermine their freedom.

An example of this process has been seen quite clearly in Scotland over the past few years with the introduction of the Hamilton curfew. This initiative, officially named the Child Safety Initiative, is a prime example of how problems of child safety are inflated by the authorities to justify their own desire to regulate the time and space of children and young people - with the end result that more fear is generated within the community and more restrictions are placed on children.

The Child Safety Initiative was targeted at three working-class estates in Hamilton - one being an area called Hillhouse - and promoted as something needed to protect the children who were "running wild at night" from all the possible dangers they faced on the streets.

However, this image of the streets of Hillhouse being filled with children and stalking paedophiles is not backed up by my research or even the research of the Scottish Office itself.

The first myth is that the children in the curfewed areas are running around wild late at night. If anything, the opposite is true. Children aged nine to 11 are highly supervised at night. A third never play out on the streets, few are out after 7.30pm and the Scottish Office's own report into the area found that adults did not think there was a problem of children wandering the streets at night. Even those who are allowed to go out are often being watched over by their parents.

Another myth is that the children in Hillhouse are in any danger when they are out at night. The only "bother" any of the children I spoke to mentioned was being chased and called names by other children. None had experienced any incidents with "strange adults"; local people who had lived on the estate for over 50 years knew of no paedophile threat having ever existed on the estate; and again, even the Scottish Office researchers had to conclude that there was no evidence of any danger to any of the children in Hillhouse.

The Scottish Office research also noted, since the introduction of the initiative, that parents were now more aware of the dangers faced by their children when out playing, and I found that the time children were allowed to play out had been reduced since the curfew was set up.

Taking the dictionary definition of "social" as "living in a community rather than alone" or "relating to or having the purpose of promoting companionship and community activity", it is not unfair to argue that the promotion and development of child-safety initiatives is running the risk of creating an antisocial generation.

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