Bully for childhood

Teasing, conflict and even fighting are all normal and necessary parts of children’s lives, shows Helene Guldberg in her brilliant new book. It’s the safety-first attitude of adults that risks doing far more damage to children’s development.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Books

It has become almost commonplace to hear people in high places and even UK government ministers pay lip service to the problem of ‘cotton wool kids’ and the need to allow children more freedom to play. But when did you hear anybody dare to declare that teasing, arguing and even fighting are normal and necessary parts of childhood, or that the official anti-bullying and anti-abuse crusades are dangerous barriers to social development?

Reclaiming Childhood is a brilliant book that shows why almost everything the experts tell us about children in our society is wrong. Helene Guldberg sets out to challenge the myths about modern children and to present a ‘more honest, positive perspective’.

First the good news. Contrary to countless reports, kids in the UK today are not screwed-up, stressed-out, abused, obese, bullied, mentally ill, anti-social specimens. Things are far better than we have been led to believe. The bad news, however, is that our fearful obsession with keeping children safe from risks and threats, real and imagined, is creating the danger of screwing them up and damaging society’s future. As Guldberg’s introduction puts it perceptively, ‘it is not children that are messed up but today’s attitude to children’.

Guldberg is well known as the co-founder and managing editor of spiked, and before that as the co-publisher of LM magazine. But she has never given up her day job as an authority on child development and a lecturer in developmental psychology. Here she deploys both the academic and polemical sides of her skills, marshalling facts and arguments to question the doom and gloom about the state of childhood in the UK, and showing why adults ‘should stop projecting their fears and uncertainties on to children, labelling them with the “stressed” and “depressed” tag, and instead allow children to grow and flourish with a balance of sensible adult guidance and some youthful independence’.

Drawing on her own experience as a free-roaming child in Norway, Guldberg has long campaigned on issues of play and freedom. Such work by her and others has begun to bear fruit with the raising of public concerns about cotton wool kids. For Guldberg, however, that questioning of the safety-first attitude to childhood has not gone nearly far enough. Her hardest-hitting chapter, ‘The bullying bandwagon’, pulls no punches on the need to let kids learn about life through experience – even if it includes some bad experiences.

The old playground adage about ‘sticks and stones…’, Guldberg notes, has effectively been turned on its head. Some may now concede that kids should be allowed to climb trees and play conkers at the risk of a few bruises or scraped knees, ‘but the notion that children can be damaged for life as a result of insults hurled at them by their fellow pupils has become accepted as common sense’. The result is more codes of playground behaviour and more extensive adult intervention in childish disputes – a process that can damage children’s development and relations with one another far more than the odd hurled insult or punch.

It may be shocking to hear that the 2006 National Bullying Survey found that 69 per cent of 5,000 respondents claimed to have been bullied. But when you note how the definition of bullying has been widened from violence to include being teased, called names, ‘pushed and pulled’, having your stuff ‘messed about with’, and even just being ignored by other kids, it might seem a wonder that the figure wasn’t closer to 99 per cent.

Guldberg examines in detail how the ever-expanding anti-bullying crusade has problematised all childhood relationships – which, in a can’t-see-the-woods-for-the trees way, does nothing to help spot those rare cases of serious brutality. On one hand, children are treated as babies and denied the rough and tumble through which they can learn about relating to others. On the other, they are treated as little adults, accused of serious offences such as racial abuse or assault for childish indiscretions.

Not only are teachers and other adults encouraged to intervene more and more in playground matters, notes Guldberg, but through the campaign against ‘cyber bullying’ the authorities would also deny young people freedom online, thus ‘threatening one of the few arenas they have left to develop and conduct relationships with one another outside the increasingly small, closely-monitored worlds of home and school’.

Her conclusion that, in the words of one US sociologist, disputes, conflict and teasing among children are important for ‘cultivating, testing and maintaining friendships, and developing and displaying social identity’, will no doubt be condemned by hysterics as a ‘bully’s charter’. To others among us it looks more like a welcome charter for children and childhood development.

As she constructs her convincing case against the cocooning and structured over-supervision of children everywhere from the home and playground to the World Wide Web, Guldberg goes beyond the arguments for more freedom that may be familiar to readers of spiked. She suggests that childhood itself is at risk.

Children may always have been with us but, she points out, childhood as it is understood today is a modern phenomenon. It only really acquired meaning for most young people in Britain with the decline of child labour and expansion of education in the more developed society of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Before that, if they survived the dangers and diseases of infancy, young people were treated as small adults, not only in extremes such as the infamous case of the seven-year-old girl hanged for theft in the seventeenth century, but in everyday life. (Many children elsewhere in the world still know little or nothing of childhood.)

Now, argues Guldberg, even in developed societies such as the UK and the USA, childhood is being put at risk once more through the mixed-up and insecure attitudes of adult culture. We appear to want permanently to infantilise and over-protect our young people, yet at the same time to treat them as anti-social threats to civilisation. In the advanced society of the twenty-first century, she says, ‘it is up to us to protect childhood as an important stage of development rather than pathologising it as a dangerous, unhappy time; and to help children on their way into adulthood, rather than seeking to keep them infantile forever’. I was also struck by Louis Pasteur’s words that, while childhood is a wonderful and inspiring thing, ‘childhood prolonged cannot remain a fairyland. It becomes a hell.’

In the end ‘it is up to us’ could be the slogan of Reclaiming Childhood, a book that reveals important truths about adult society as much as childhood today. To address the problems in adult-child relations, Guldberg shows, we need to sort out proper relations of trust and solidarity among grown-ups: let parents be parents, teachers be teachers, and strangers be friends. Through applying the lessons of Reclaiming Childhood, we might also reclaim a proper sense of adulthood.

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.

Reclaiming Childhood, by Helene Guldberg is published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Books


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