The roots of ‘paedophobia’

A new report, Freedom's Orphans, shows that adults are afraid to challenge children. But its proposed solutions would make matters worse.

Stuart Waiton

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Topics Politics

A few years ago I wrote a book looking at the increasing regulation of young people’s lives that asked the question: are we Scared of the Kids? According to a forthcoming report from the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR), Freedom’s Orphans: Raising Youth in a Changing World, the answer to this question appears to be ‘yes’.

The report, based on comparative interviews with adults in a number of European countries, found that whereas in Germany, Spain and Italy, over half the respondents said they would intervene if they saw a group of 14-year olds vandalising a bus shelter, in the UK only 34 per cent said they would do something. This compared most starkly with results in Germany, where 65 per cent – or almost twice as many adults – said they would try to stop the vandals.

Part of the reason for this, Freedom’s Orphans argues, is that adults in Britain appear to be more nervous about intervening, worried that their actions could lead to physical violence, verbal abuse or subsequent reprisals. This fear of children and young people also appears to be on the increase. Nearly twice as many people today said that young people hanging about, rather than noisy neighbours, was something they would complain about, compared to 1992.

The usefulness of this report is that rather than providing a myopic focus on children’s behaviour, it looks at the role of adults in society. The reports asks what they would do to stop misbehaving young people – but also analyses their engagement and relationships with children on a day-to-day level.

Compared with other European countries for example, Julia Margot of the IPPR believes that ‘adults are less likely to socialise with children in the evenings’ (1). We don’t have a culture of children hanging out where adults socialise, in bars, cafes or town centres – so are less inclined, she argues, to get used to engaging and dealing with young people.

This certainly rings true. From my occasional trips abroad to places like Spain, it is often surprising to see how children and young people are much more part of the public environment than they are in Britain. I live in Scotland and I often find that Italian and Greek restaurants have a more relaxed attitude to children than do their local counterparts, perhaps because of the more traditional nature of family life in those countries. That’s not to say that they allow my children to run around as they please, but rather that they are more comfortable in relating to them and in playing a more active role to control their behaviour. This compares with many Scottish restaurants where you sense a certain tension when your children leave their seats, only finally to be informed that ‘health and safety’ regulations mean that the children must sit still.

In Hamilton, where I carried out my research for Scared of the Kids?, it was also the case that those adults who were involved in running activities for young people had a far more positive view of them than many of the other adults in the area. Interestingly, in my own neighbourhood, the only ‘strange’ adult who has ever stopped and talked to one of my children turned out to be an elderly scout leader – and to some extent it appears that unless you have an ‘official’ role with children, for the rest of the adult population (often myself included I hasten to add) children are off-limits.

In the IPPR press release, the changes to adult-child relations, the increased fear of young people and the disconnection of generations are all put down to broad changes in the family, local communities and the economy. There are real changes in childhood, they argue – but ‘paedophobia’, or the fear of children, ‘makes things worse’.

This all sounds reasonable enough. Society is more fragmented, we have fewer connections with society as a whole and with other individuals in particular, and childhood has to a large extent become privatised. Ironically, at a time when ‘other’ adults are drifting into the background, parents are spending more time with their own children than before.

However, whether or not this would necessarily mean that adults are more frightened of young people and become less prepared to engage with them or not is less clear. Perhaps the other European countries under study have remained more ‘solid’, more traditional and therefore more spontaneously engaged with children – but I think this is only half the story. We also need to look at the role that policy, professionals and politicians have played in creating the culture of ‘paedophobia’.

Ted, a colleague of mine and caretaker in a community centre, has recently been cleared in court of assaulting a teenage boy who he escorted out of a youth centre. Ted is now frightened to do his job and in a sense has become frightened – not of children as such, but of the laws and policies that encourage parents to ‘make a claim’, that see the police carry the case to court, and which left Ted isolated as his union refused to support him.

A sociologist, and friend of mine, tells me in no uncertain terms that he wouldn’t go near a young child today because of ‘what people might think’. Nor will he meet with female students at his university unless his office door is left open. This is paedophobia of a different sort – and not one that has been brought on simply by changes in the economy or the community.

Similarly, where has the idea that approaching young people could endanger you come from? This may have developed partly because of the growing distance that exists between adults and young people. It may even be, as the IPPR report suggests, that young people are more likely to misbehave because adults no longer intervene. But let’s face it, whether the behaviour of children was worse or not, it is likely that this would be the impression in society because for at least the a decade politicians have played on people’s insecurities about ‘yobs’ and ‘neds’. Rather than challenge an exaggerated fear of young people, they have pandered to it.

In turn, adults intervening when young people misbehave is, quite frankly, no longer ‘the done thing’ – a message promoted by politicians, housing officers, ASBOs, and many other sources. For example, at a recent conference I attended on the issue of antisocial behaviour, Bill Pitt (the Home Office ASBO guru who is sent round the country to promote ASBO legislation) told a story about how he saw a young man charged past an old lady to get on a bus, knocking her to the ground.

He challenged the young man about his behaviour. I asked Pitt if that meant he would suggest to other adults that they too should be more active when young people are antisocial. No, he said. It appears that Big Bill can be active, but for the ‘unconfident community’, as he describes them, it is the state in the form of the local officials who must act.

Having started by raising the important issue of adults not being prepared to intervene to regulate young people’s behaviour, the IPPR report disappointingly makes suggestions that will make matters worse. It notes, citing rather dated research based on young people in the 1970s and 80s, that teenagers who spend more time with their friends than their parents, and those who are less likely to be involved in structured youth activities rather than unstructured youth clubs, are more likely to be involved in crime and violence. Other indicators of ‘problems’, like depression, being single or divorced, living in social housing, and having no qualifications, are also linked to children who were not involved in structured youth activities. However, all the percentages for these apparent problems were noticeably low, ranging from two to five per cent in all the above examples. It is also unclear whether this takes account of other obvious ‘causes’ for these differences, like class.

The conclusion the authors draw is that the solution is an increase in structured activities. They propose that all secondary-school children should be forced to participate in at least two hours of structured extracurricular activities per week, with parents who refuse to sanction this being fined.

Ignoring the authoritarian aspect of this proposal for a moment, it is wrong to assume that this will do anything to overcome the problems of crime and behaviour in society, even if some kids do benefit from such activity. This proposal not only does nothing to solve the problem of the disconnection between adults and children, it makes it worse. It not only ignores the wider problem of deactivated adults, but potentially further endorses the existing belief that relating to other people’s children is not the business of other adults but of experts. It also endorses the notion that young people who are out unsupervised are a potential problem, or at least they will be in the future – thus enhancing, rather than challenging, the ‘paedophobia’ they are concerned about.

Ironically, with the increasing suspicion towards adults who volunteer to work with young people, it is hard to know who will man all these structured youth activities proposed by the IPPR.

Additionally, by promoting the idea that children are better off either with their parents or at least being with other adults in a structured environment, rather than with their friends, this report runs the risk of de-socialising and even infantilising young people further. Children are already more inclined to be what some have termed ‘cotton-wool kids’. Spending more time with their parents and in supervised adult company than ever before, and a decreasing amount of time freely engaging with other young people, will only exacerbate that trend.

This is not to argue that young people should have the ‘right’ to roam free, but rather that for the development of communities we need children to become more public, not less, and adults to see young people not as someone else’s problem but as public property.

The report’s authors, like the present government, are blind to the potential within ordinary adults actively to engage with young people – preferring instead a ‘state’ solution, with the further regulation of young people as the answer. But this approach ultimately helps to undermine the process of socialising young people – which must involve free engagement between adults and children.

A final note. It is wrong for people to think that most young people, even those behaving badly, will attack you when you intervene. A few will, and many more may tell you where to go. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t intervene – rather it makes it all the more important that we should. Other adults may not back you, some parents will defend their children rather than support your actions. But it is only in the process of trying to resolve this ourselves that we can help develop the communities we live in.

Stuart Waiton is a director of Generation: Youth Issues. The group have launched a campaign to encourage adults to intervene with young people and support others who do so. For more information, contact AdultSolidarity@GenerationYouthIssues.org.uk.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Parents and kids

(1) British adults ‘fear youngsters’, BBC News, 22 October 2006

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Topics Politics