Let us not make children afraid of life

The biggest childhood risk is paranoia, says Stuart Waiton
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The Independent Online
This week is Child Safety Week - a week that has the potential for scaring the socks off even the most laid-back of children and parents. Set up by the Child Accident Prevention Trust and backed by the Department of Employment and Education, Health, Trade and Industry, and Transport, along with the Health Education Authority and McDonalds, the campaign begs us to think about the growing dangers our children face today.

Have you considered the "sun safety" of your children? Or what about the "summer poisons and stings problem", or the "safety on summer trips" dilemma? Fear not, the child safety hotline is now open to help increase your awareness, change your behaviour and train you to become a responsible, safety-conscious parent.

Child safety is one of the growth industries in Britain and yet, statistically, children are safer, healthier and materially better off than ever before. Childhood disease is all but gone and accident mortality rates continue to fall.

Many primary school children use the drop-in centre I run in Glasgow. Most of them are pretty sussed - either from being streetwise or because their parents have given them the space to look after themselves a bit. However, there are two boys, Patrick and John, whom I see from time to time, generally accompanied by their mother, who are clearly outsiders. They are both a bit awkward and nervous of the other children, and they usually sit next to me. Their parents are over-protective and, as a result, Patrick and John are at a disadvantage in developing relations with their peer group - no doubt sometimes nasty and spiteful, but their peer group nonetheless.

As time goes by, I hope that Patrick and John will be forced to grow up, start looking after themselves and taking a few risks. I say "hope", because with the growing industry of child safety specialists around today, there is a danger that, rather than maturing with age they, and the many others like them, will become more, rather than less, timid and afraid of life.

Youth work has been redefined as working with "young people at risk". Schools are starting to resemble prison camps - with CCTV, switch cards and private security guards on hand to deal with outsiders and a team of counsellors to handle the "scourge of bullies" on the inside. And many more parents are driving their children to and from school in fear of stranger danger.

Areas of a child's life once seen as unproblematic are now shrouded in fear. The most recent youth handbook sent to my centre noted that young people were at risk from unemployment, and they were also at risk of abuse from prospective employers when they went for job interviews - "take a friend just to be safe".

Sex leaflets arrive every week to remind us all that Aids is out to get us. A disease that those not in the high-risk groups have as much chance of catching as they have of winning the lottery is, apparently, "everywhere".

Meanwhile Patrick, John and the rest of the children in my centre are being put at risk simply by playing on the computers. It seems these games are now officially "addictive" as kids "appear to enjoy the same euphoria as do smokers and heavy drinkers" while playing Sonic the Hedgehog (Alcohol and Drug Abuse Weekly, 10 March 1994). So, if you are in the area, drop in for a fix of Tetris or an injection of Mortal Combat.

Clearly children need to be looked after and taught how to cross the road, but the greatest risk they face today is paranoia and a life behind closed doors. When risk aversion means avoiding and fearing the big bad world, then the capacity for autonomous development is greatly reduced. Experiences are lost and living itself becomes one long nightmare.

The emergence of such new conditions among children as eating, sleeping and other behavioural disorders - the latest being "juvenile ME" - suggests that even for those children safe at home with their happy meal, all is not well.

The writer is a youth worker in Glasgow.