Unwrapping the ‘cotton wool’ kids

It would take more than school lessons in risk-taking to challenge the culture that is stifling our children.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

British children need to be taught how to embrace risk, says the head of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI). How is that supposed to work, then?

Speaking at the annual conference of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) on 2 May, Sir Digby Jones bemoaned the growth of a ‘rights culture’ in the UK that turns people into victims seeking compensation. ‘We, and especially politicians and the media, are all taking part in something of a deceit because we are teaching the next generation that risk doesn’t exist’, he told the audience. ‘When they leave school they are going to get the shock of their lifetime because out there in the big bad world risk exists every day. Unless we educate children about risk, get them to understand it, to embrace it and exploit it, then we will fail as a nation.’ (1)

So after children have been dropped off at school by their parents, played nicely on the concrete-and-bully-free playgrounds, sat through the day’s assembly on the subject of stranger danger, watched a video in the science lesson because real-life experiments are too hazardous, participated in a citizenship class on the horrors of underage sex and drug abuse and choked down their fat/salt/sugar-free organic school dinner, they will then form a circle and discuss the importance of taking risks? Erm, no.

Yet Sir Digby Jones has a point. His list of modern ‘don’ts’ – ‘Don’t play conkers in the playground, you might get hurt. Don’t do backstroke in the swimming pool, you might bump into somebody. Don’t take kids canoeing on a Saturday, they might put you in the slammer’ – will strike a chord with many of those struggling to bring a bit of excitement and independence into childhood in the face of the current orthodoxy of ‘safety first’. Many, too, might sympathise with the warning given by NAHT secretary David Hart: ‘We are in great danger of wrapping our children in cotton wool to such an extent that eventually they will be suffocated.’

But where Jones, David Hart, the Daily Mail and others who publicly mock the extreme aspects of today’s child safety culture have got it wrong is where they attempt to identify the cause of the problem, and pose solutions. By focusing on bans on conker playing and other examples of ‘PC gone mad’, the blame is laid at the door of a sensational media, neurotic parents, over-sensitive teachers and joyless local bureaucracy. If only people could just wake up to the stupidity of the situation, goes the argument, society could find a more healthy balance between safety and necessary risk-taking.

The culture of risk-aversion, however, goes far deeper than the odd crackpot attitude and over-the-top regulation. The phenomenon that Frank Furedi has termed ‘Paranoid Parenting’ has become an orthodoxy that governs every aspect of child-rearing, from the most banal, everyday matters such as how we feed children and whether we let them play outdoors to questions of education (how to construct an exam system that nobody fails) and life ambition (how to encourage your kids to do what’s best for them, without over-burdening them with high expectations).

This sensibility about the vulnerability of children, and the notion that society should organise itself around protecting them from any potential harm, is not about consciously avoiding risk so much as about redefining standard features of everyday life as problematic. And while it feeds off media scare stories and parental anxieties, it comes from the very top of society.

It is not (yet) government policy to ban conker playing or school canoeing trips. But it is government policy to highlight the dangers posed to children by everyday parental behaviour, schooling experience and social interaction. Parents smacking their children, feeding them ‘junk food’ or failing to read to them are prominent targets for the official attempt to show that ‘Every child matters’. Fear of academic failure and damaged self-esteem are seen as far more pressing issues for schools than the inability of A-grade university students to read a book or construct an essay; and countering the supposedly malign influence of peer pressure (friends) among groups of teenagers has become a favourite theme in anti-bullying and mentoring initiatives.

Running through all this is the assumption that children are at risk from the people around them, and particularly those closest to them; and that what society needs is a code of conduct to ensure that the safety and self-esteem of the child are paramount, to be placed above all other considerations. In such a climate, no wonder parents become paranoid – to resist the orthodoxy invites the label of child abuser.

What drives this culture is not that children have become somehow more vulnerable than previous generations. And it doesn’t make them safer, or even more ‘valued’. The concern that children’s failure to play outdoors, because of overblown fears of child abduction and traffic accidents, is contributing to a ‘couch potato culture’ of snacking and obesity (along with an inability to cross the road) is now articulated from many quarters. The inability of the examinations system to fail any child, and the tendency to give more and more of them top grades, simply means that their grades are greeted with cynicism and failure is experienced in a more messy, protracted fashion upon leaving school.

What drives this culture, in short, is not concern about children but adults’ fear of grown-up life. The decline of adult solidarity means that suspicion and mistrust increasingly govern the relationships between adults engaged in the task of bringing up children, making an already anxious situation even more fraught. This feeds into a broader loss of faith in people’s ability to make a profound difference to society at large, and the sentiment that any attempt to make a difference risks making things worse. The focus of adult activity narrows to the minutiae of child-rearing, and the focus of child-rearing becomes protecting children from the big bad world, rather than initiating them into adult society.

Any discussion of this unhealthy situation is welcome, and any solution worth considering. But that means recognising that the problem goes much deeper than the CBI and the NAHT seem to think, and there is no easy, teach-it solution waiting in the wings.

So when Sir Digby Jones contrasts the British victim culture to the situation in other major economies – ‘There are 1.2 billion risk-takers in China and 1 billion in India and 280 million in the United States’ – you do wonder if he needs to get out more. Where does the ‘compensation culture’ that he roundly attacks come from, if not from America? It is in the USA that British parents have been arrested for leaving their child locked in a car for a few minutes outside a drugstore, and the big media scare stories that we have witnessed in the UK over the past 10 years, about child abductions and paedophile rings in daycare centres, had their precedents in the USA. Maybe China and India are immune from a culture that dominates the entire Western world, but that seems unlikely.

And while NAHT leader David Hart welcomed the CBI’s warnings about ‘wrapping our children in cotton wool’, other head teachers were more cautious. When Sir Digby Jones called for ‘exams you can fail’, some delegates told him such an approach could mean some youngsters being ‘confronted with their failure’ and alienated from the system (2). Head teachers are hardly known for their willingness to embrace risk and reject victim culture, just as business now operates according to the diktat of risk management and exhibits less entrepreneurial zeal than cautious plod. To imply that parents, teachers and a few bureaucrats are somehow responsible for creating a generation of wimps who will make British business crumble seems a bit rich.

The discussion about ‘cotton wool’ kids needs to go beyond false claims and misguided blame. It’s not about what we teach children, but about how adults shape the kind of society we want to live in. Until we, as a society, appreciate what it means to be a grown-up, we will never be able to expect much from our kids.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Parents and kids

(1) Children must learn to embrace risk, heads are told, The Times (London), 3 May 2005

(2) ‘Teach risk’ says business boss, BBC News, 2 May 2005

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Topics Politics


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