Spare the risk, and cocoon the child

Over-protected children
Click to follow
The Independent Online
In these punitive times what a breath of fresh air it is to hear someone use the words "children" and "freedom" in the same sentence. Jacqueline Lang, headmistress of an independent school, made a sensible little speech about how we over-protect our children and it has become front page news. That such common sense is deemed newsworthy is an indication of how far we are from absorbing it. We are so used to seeing the word children linked to words such as risk, abuse, curfew that to talk of childhood as a time of excitement and exploration and invigorating risk taking seems outrageous.

This may be because we have been so busy recreating modern childhood in the image of our own addled adulthood that we cannot see the damage we are doing. The grown-up complaints of lack of time, of feeling stressed- out, of perceiving the world as an increasingly dangerous place have all been passed on to our offspring. Whereas many people remember the long, slow idling of their own childhoods, the summer holidays that went on for ever and ever, now kids feel as harassed and rushed and anxious as the rest of us.

One of the basic problems always seems to me to be that some parents will not leave their children alone to amuse themselves. The idea of doing nothing is an anathema in our puritanical, work-obsessed culture. So despite the fact that "doing nothing" may be both creative and relaxing, good parenting has in some eyes become a frantic activity which involves constantly stimulating the child. These poor creatures, with dark circles under their eyes, cannot flop in front of the TV when they get home from school but must learn to play an instrument, because that is what well-rounded individuals do.

Even babies are not immune to such nutty behaviour. Every toy must be educational, as though play for play's sake were somehow a waste of time; for we implicitly tell our children that what is more important in the balance between work and play is always work. Many toys are no longer what you give children, so that you can get on with whatever it is you want to do, but complicated objects often needing adult supervision to make sure they are played with correctly.

As children get older, we begin to worry even more if they appear to be doing nothing. Hanging out, hanging around, those endless hours of sitting on walls and eating chips in the street are now perceived as threats to the very fabric of society. Sure enough, there are some kids who will get into trouble if they are allowed out at all hours; but there are just as many who will not respond well to curfews. Mrs Lang's views are significant, too, in that she talked of loosening the restrictions on children at a time when the state wants to introduce more and more. School inspectors tutting at Summerhill, proposals for banning the purchase of cigarettes to those under 18, alongside Jack Straw's proposals to overhaul the youth justice system, point to a further regulation of young people. Indeed, adolescents, though avid consumers of the myth of freedom and independence, find themselves more and more financially dependent on their parents. Teenagers, it seems to me, are really not going to get much out of this Government, which is big on their responsibilities but has little to say about their rights.

All of this is done, of course, in the name of caring about our children. The children ferried about in cars are often, once they get on the streets, quite a hazard. No one has taught them how to cross a road, as they have been too busy coaching them as to what to say to paedophiles. Yet while we all nod our heads in agreement that it is better for children to walk or use public transport, there is a degree of dishonesty here. If children went to local schools, then there would not be a question about walking to them. If community were really as valued as it is claimed, then we would want our children to live near their schoolmates. Yet when the children of our Prime Minister travel halfway across London, what hope is there that this is a realisable goal?

In making the world a dangerous place, we over-assess the risks to our children and so prevent them from learning how to assess the risks for themselves. The reason that so much drug education does not work is that its emphasis on danger and risk does not tally with young people's actual experiences of drug use. We also forget our own growing-up; we forget how sometimes we learnt right from wrong by doing wrong. We learnt about perverts from teasing them and then running away, we learnt about drugs by taking them and about sex by messing about and, if we were lucky, we learnt about pregnancy and disease and even death through someone else's misfortune and not our own.

Like any parent I would hope that my own kids do not do some of the things I did, though mostly I hope that they will not lie to me as much as I lied to my mother. Yet as my eldest daughter enters the wonderful world of the teenager, I am relieved to see that there is safety in numbers. When she and her friends take the tube to the West End to buy stationery and ice-cream and hang about giggling, this gang of girls has little to fear. They are confident. Why shouldn't I be? They feel that they are untouchable. I used to feel much the same at their age.

But the great thing of course is that once your child can go about by itself, you have more time too, and you can relax and see that there are probably no more risks than there ever were. What is more, you may have to admit that a life without risk is a kind of half-life. Another reason that Mrs Lang's speech was so refreshing was because to share her view, you need a kind of faith in children, a belief that they will be OK in the end.

Instead too many of us are afraid of what we have produced, scared of what our kids may turn into. Our fear of our own future circumscribes their present. Surely though the kids are all right and, as Simone de Beavoir once wrote, "It is not a question of stopping the movement of life; it is a question of fulfilling it."