Don’t blame parents for ‘cotton-wool kids’

Today is Playday, a celebration of children’s ‘right to play’ - and an ideal time to have a kickabout with the culture of fear that imprisons our kids.

An ICM survey commissioned by Play England for Playday - the annual celebration of children’s right to play, which takes place today, 6 August - reportedly shows that over-cautious parents are ‘spoiling’ children’s playtime. ‘Children are being denied adventurous play because their parents are nervous about exposing them to risk’, warns BBC News (1).

The Playday poll shows that half of children aged 7 to 12 years (51 per cent) are not allowed to climb a tree without adult supervision, and 42 per cent are not allowed to play in their local park without an adult present.

‘Constantly wrapping children in cotton wool can leave them ill-equipped to deal with stressful or challenging situations they might encounter later in life’, said Adrian Voce, director of Play England, a charity that promotes ‘free play opportunities’. ‘Adventurous play both challenges and excites children and helps instil critical life skills,’ he said.

According to Play England, this year’s Playday theme – ‘Give us a go!’ – highlights children’s need to ‘experience risky and challenging play’ in order to ensure they are able to ‘manage risk in their daily lives’ (2). Playday is supported by Persil, the washing powder manufacturer, whose website says the aim is ‘to shake off the “cotton wool” culture that can limit children’s play’ (3).


Helene Guldberg’s book, which
will be published in January 2009

These are commendable aims. There is a real danger that by cocooning, over-protecting and over-supervising children, society might be denying the next generation the opportunity to grow up and become capable, confident adults. This is one of the reasons I decided to write Reclaiming Childhood: Freedom and Play in an Age of Fear, which will be published early next year in the UK and the US (4). I feel strongly that children are losing out on many childhood experiences that my generation took for granted.

Children need space away from adults’ watchful eyes - in order to play, experiment, take risks (within a sensible framework provided by adults), test boundaries, have arguments, fight, and learn how to resolve conflicts. Today, they are increasingly denied these opportunities.

But I also feel that in pinning the blame on individual parents and their ‘over-cautious’ anxieties, as Play England is doing today, those who decry the decline of outdoor play are being unfair – and naive. The cause of the cotton-wool kids phenomenon is a broader cultural obsession with risk, which has had a major impact upon policymakers, public institutions and media debate, as well as upon teachers and parents. And in challenging this culture, it is important to be clear about where the real problem lies, and to resist pat explanations for its cause.

In his book Paranoid Parenting, spiked writer and sociologist Professor Frank Furedi described the culture of fear that has led parents to restrict their children’s freedom to roam. He showed that parental fears must be understood in the context of a generalised sense of anxiety and risk-aversion, which is particularly strong when it comes to the lives and futures of children.

The fact is that parents are continually told to be ‘better safe than sorry’, and it is far from easy for parents to go against the grain and give their children more freedom than society currently deems acceptable. In April 2008, the New York Sun columnist Lenore Skenazy wrote an article entitled ‘Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Ride The Subway Alone’. She gave her son a subway map, a MetroCard, a $20 bill, and several quarters, ‘just in case he had to make a call’, waved him goodbye, and told him she’d see him at home.

She wrote: ‘I trusted him to figure out that he should take the Lexington Avenue subway, and the 34th Street crosstown bus home. If he couldn’t do that, I trusted him to ask a stranger. And then I even trusted that stranger not to think, “Gee, I was about to catch my train home, but now I think I’ll abduct this adorable child instead.”’ (5)

Skenazy later described how she suddenly became ‘a lightning rod in the parenting wars’: ‘Mention my story and millions of people not only know about it, they have a very strong opinion about it, and me, and my parenting skills - or utter, shameful lack thereof.’ In an interview with spiked in April, she described how she became branded ‘America’s worst mom’ simply for allowing her child to do what most people her age had done routinely when they were young.

But there were also many parents who applauded her decision to let her son travel alone. In her spiked interview, Skenazy stressed that many people reacted positively to her column. She has now set up a blog - Free Range Kids - which is filled with stories from parents who give their children the freedom to do things on their own, and with the concerns of parents who would like to give their kids more freedom, but don’t (see ‘I’ve been labelled the world’s worst mom’, by Nancy McDermott).

The root of the problem is not parental fears but the fact that parents are continually discouraged from entrusting their children to other adults. In the UK, it is a crime to work with children without first being vetted by the authorities. The Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act, which was passed into law in England and Wales in 2006, requires that millions of adults whose work involves coming into contact with children must undergo Criminal Records Bureau checks. The message this gives to parents and children is to be suspicious of any adult who comes into contact with young people.

Also, it is almost impossible in Britain today to take photos of one’s children, grandchildren, nieces or nephews in public places if they are surrounded by other children. The rules governing the use of cameras and camera-phones in swimming pools, parks, at children’s parties, pantomimes, school sports days and any other place where children might be present are ubiquitous, and strictly enforced. The kind of photos that have traditionally appeared in many a family album are now treated as being akin to potential child pornography.

In this climate of institutionalised fear and suspicion, it is little wonder that parents do not feel confident about letting their children play unsupervised in the streets or in local parks – especially when it is assumed by many that any parent who does let their child run around is a Bad Parent, and possibly the ‘worst mom in the world’.

Ultimately parents will only give children the independence they need if they have sufficient trust in other adults – trust in them not to harm their children, but to look out for them. When we grew up our parents assumed that if we got into trouble, other adults – often strangers – would help out. Today that trust does not exist – or, at least, it has been seriously damaged by government policy, media debate and a rising culture of suspicion towards adults’ motives.

Only by challenging the safety-obsessed culture that depicts every adult as a potential threat can we start to build a better future – and present - for our children and ourselves. Today’s Playday should involve a lot of fun and freedom for children, which is great; let us now build on it by standing up to the paralysing climate of fear and make every day a Playday for youngsters.

Helene Guldberg is managing editor of spiked and author of Reclaiming Childhood: Freedom and Play in an Age of Fear, to be published by Routledge in early 2009. (This book can be pre-ordered from Amazon(UK).) Visit Helene’s website here.

Previously on spiked

Helene Guldberg questioned the claims of a report which said children are becoming hostages to parental fears. She argued that it was the government, not parents, which made us so uptight about kids’ play in the first place. Nancy McDermott spoke to the woman who was labelled ‘the world’s worst mom’ after letting her son take the subway alone. Or read more at spiked issue Parents and kids .

(1) Over-cautious parents stop play, BBC News, 4 August 2008

(2) See the Persil Playday website here

(3) New figures for Playday 2008 reveal children deprived of adventurous play, Play England, 4 August 2008

(4) Reclaiming Childhood, by Helene Guldberg

(5) New York Sun, 1 April 2008

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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