Is ‘eat your peas!’ emotional abuse?

My friend’s eight-year-old son doesn’t like greens. Recently, when faced with a dinner plate containing fish, chips and peas, he was asked by his dad to ‘Finish it all up!’, to which the boy replied, ‘I feel very uncomfortable having to eat these peas’. It was a striking moment. It seemed he’d internalised the language of child protection, and then used it to get his own way; one of the mantras children are taught at school nowadays is ‘Never feel you have to do anything you are uncomfortable with’.

This may seem like a funny example, but it shows how the language of child protection can be used to undermine adult authority. I was recently in a bus station in London where some noisy teenage girls were throwing sweets around. An elderly man gently remonstrated with them; they responded by shouting ‘Paedo!’ at him.

Children are not stupid. They pick up on the general culture of fear and suspicion of adults that has sprung from society’s obsession with child protection. A few years ago, the children’s charity Barnardo’s ran a notorious advert showing adults hunting down ‘feral’ children. The message was that children are not ‘feral’ and do not ‘behave like animals’. Yes, that’s true, but what this advert said about adults was much more troubling: adults, according to Barnardo’s, are the sort of people who prey on children. Messages like this not only make children wary and resentful of adult authority, but they foster anxiety among adults: dare I force him to eat his peas?

This week, it was announced that the government is considering whether to introduce a new offence of ‘emotional cruelty’ to existing child-neglect law. The proposal was in response to a campaign launched by the charity Action for Children, and has become known as the Cinderella Law. This legal change is a ‘monumental step forward for thousands of children’, at least according to Conservative MP Robert Buckland who is supporting the new law. Under the proposed legislation, ‘isolating’, ‘belittling’, and ‘rejecting’ children would, potentially, be a criminal offence.

What precisely would constitute genuine abuse under this legislation is hard to tell, but it will likely have a disastrous impact on the already fraught relationship between adults and children, further undermining what Hannah Arendt called the ‘pre-political’ authority of parent over child. How long will it be before repeated simple instructions like ‘Switch off that computer!’, or ‘Go to bed now!’, will make children so ‘uncomfortable’ that they cry ‘emotional abuse’?

Dennis Hayes is professor of education at the University of Derby.

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