Leading Article: Time to unfasten the seatbelts and set your children free

Share
Related Topics
To be young, in 1997, is to be safer than at any previous time in recorded history. Safer, that is, in the sense of not being likely to die - is there any measure more absolute than that? Childhood is safer because of medical advances and improvements in public health. It is also safer because children have fewer fatal accidents, a third as many as when Ted Heath was Prime Minister.

It follows that a lot of parental fear and anxiety is mistaken. Among the reasons is the role played by the British newspaper press; media-instigated fear of crime seems to be exaggeratedly high here compared with other countries. Parents' perceptions matter hugely in the way children are brought up. Jackie Lang of the Girls' Schools Association made the case yesterday for stepping back. Parents, she argued, need to let children breathe a bit, make a few mistakes. She is right.

This is not to try and capture some prelapsarian idyll when, like Richmal Compton's William, we could wander out in the meadows, slosh around in ditches, stuff frogs in our trouser pockets. It is true that, a generation ago, children played on largely empty streets which are now busy with cars. But it is also a fact that opportunities for physical activity for children have expanded enormously, from urban playgrounds, to clubs in and out of school catering for all manner of specialist interests. Turning children out of doors to play is neither to subject them to the depredations of drug dealers nor to see them fall under the wheels of juggernauts.

We do not live in an urban jungle. Wicked predators do not wait outside every school or linger by every playground. Of course parents must be alert, but paedophilia is not epidemic. Child homicide of any kind, let alone the brutality of the attack on Kate Bushell, is very, very rare.

As for traffic accidents, United Kingdom children are three times less likely to die on the roads than 30 years ago, and the UK record makes it just about the safest country in the European Union for children. The most dangerous place for all children was, is and will always be, in their own homes; and the most likely sources of violence against them lie within the sacred family.

Mrs Lang did not of course recommend that parents let their offspring roam free from dawn to dusk. She made her point by reference to rainwear. Why, she asked, do so few of her charges possess raincoats? Because they are delivered and picked up by car. From door to door, they rarely feel the rain on their skin. Fair enough, Mrs Lang educates the middle classes, who can afford the car journeys. But her point nevertheless applies more generally. Up and down the social structure, parents are tempted into over-protectiveness. They impose on their children regimes which cosset and insulate them. Intending to minimise risk to their children, they may end up depriving them of the chance to learn for themselves, to make their own risk assessments. No amount of GCSE maths can teach children the calculus of probability that they will need to apply, sooner or later, in their own lives.

Youth is surrounded by temptation, often compounded by ignorance. The United Kingdom is relatively safe for children on the roads, but it is a dangerous place between the sheets, on the sofa, or in the neighbourhood park: we have one of the highest rates for conceptions by under-16 girls in the EU. That, and high rates of sexually transmitted disease, reflect in part the failure of parents and schools to supply basic information. It may also speak about a wider failure to apportion risk. The newspapers (to name a prime mover in moral panics) and other media propagate the idea that sex is risk-free, while harping on the dangers of walking the neighbours' dog. The world out there is dangerous but many of its pitfalls are emotional. We spend far too much time protecting children from life, and far too little preparing them for its traps and pitfalls.

The messages given to children are often so imbalanced that it is no wonder their scale of values is warped. Never take addictive drugs - unless they are sanctioned by advertising, the Prime Minister and parents. Never have unprotected sex - but when was the last time you saw or read about the messy business of condom-wearing? We could do better, as parents or would-be parents. And we could make a start, where Mrs Lang recommends, by lightening up.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: PHP / Drupal / SaaS Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly developing company in...

Ashdown Group: Application Architect/Developer - Peterborough

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Application Architect/Developer - Peterborough, Cam...

Ashdown Group: C# Developer - (C#, VB.Net, SQL, Git, TDD)

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Developer (C#, VB & ASP.Net, SQL Server, TSQL) - Pe...

Ashdown Group: Business Relationship Manager

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Business Relationship Manager - Enfield, North Lond...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Pressure is growing on Chris Grayling to abandon the Government bid to advise Saudi Arabia on running its prisons (Getty)  

What in sanity’s name is Chris Grayling doing in the job of Justice Secretary?

Matthew Norman
Health workers of the Red Cross and Medecins Sans Frontieres take part in training  

Are we starting to see the end of Ebola? Not quite, but we're well on our way

Tom Solomon
Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea