Why parents should oppose vetting

For generations, parents invited other adults to help raise and care for their kids. Now those relationships are being corroded by the state.

Jennie Bristow

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Parenthood can be a very lonely endeavour. Two adults (if you’re lucky) and one or more children, stuck in a house (if you’re lucky) filled by the demands of washing, shopping, cooking, cleaning, often with little sleep or respite from the daily grind, and all the while juggling the pressures of paid work (if you’re lucky).

It has often been said that if the tasks of parenthood were laid out as a job description, few would apply. And most parents must have asked themselves, at some point, why on Earth they chose to embark upon this particular journey, when they could have been spending their free time lying on the beach or hanging out in the pub.

The reason we do it, of course, is that there are all sorts of intangible rewards to raising a family – and many of these come from the fact that we don’t do it entirely on our own. Having children brings with it a different set of relationships, not only with your partner and this brand new person in your life, but with the adults and children around you. Adult friendships develop on the basis of children’s friendships with each other, and vice versa; and a relationship of solidarity develops between parents and the other adults who have a shared interest in becoming a part of your child’s world.

Sometimes, these other adults are professionals – teachers, doctors – but these relationships tend to change when your child moves up a school year or when the doctor moves on. The more enduring bonds are those that are forged on the basis of a common sense of responsibility for children as a group: when adults give something of themselves to your child because they want to play a role in raising the next generation, and you gratefully accept because you know that your own individual skills and resources are limited, and other people have a lot to offer. Not to mention the fact that football coaches, Brownie leaders, other parents organising play-dates, and all those other people out there help provide some relief from the constant Being Home, and from the loneliness and anxiety that comes with feeling that you’re the only person responsible for your child.

If we understand and appreciate the vital role played by other adults that makes raising a family something more than a thankless chore, we should be very clear about the destructive consequences of Britain’s national vetting scheme. This scheme subjects all adults whose paid or voluntary work is seen to give them the opportunity to develop a relationship of trust with other people’s children to a criminal record check, and puts their details into a gigantic database that will constantly ‘monitor’ their status.

The purported aim of this scheme is to prevent convicted child abusers from gaining access to kids. The consequence is a systematic poisoning of the relationship between generations.

It is often assumed that, if you are a parent, you will accept mass vetting as a necessary evil, on the grounds that anything that stops a paedophile from getting his hands on your child must be a good thing. But as Frank Furedi and I argued last year in our report Licensed to Hug, the impetus for the national vetting scheme did not come from parents, or from a rational approach to preventing child abuse: it came from the shameless politicisation of two horrific cases of child murder, by policymakers who were already working towards the goals of a greater regulation of adults’ interaction with children.

It is inconceivable that a system of mass vetting could ever fully prevent child abuse, as it can reveal the crimes for which people have been convicted but cannot foresee anything that people might do in the future. Parents are smart enough to see this bleedin’ obvious point, and to know that, therefore, no amount of vetting can assuage their darkest fears about the worst happening. But having failed so completely in its stated objective, the national vetting scheme has managed to instil in all adults a general unease about getting close to children, either in a physical or emotional sense.

The idea that your child learns to trust other adults, or that other children learn to trust you, has gone from being a taken-for-granted positive in the reality of raising the next generation to a process that sets off a number of warning bells. What if that other person cannot be trusted? What if I don’t want this responsibility? Even if I know that I’m not a paedophile, or that little Johnny’s Scout leader or little Jessica’s daddy isn’t a paedophile, what might people think if they see me / Johnny’s Scout leader / Jessica’s daddy taking a child to the toilet or applying sun-cream to his or her back? In this paranoid framework, looking after children is no longer something that we simply do; we have to think about the consequences of every action and interaction, and balance the practicalities of looking after children with the imperative of covering our backs.

What results from all this is an aversion to taking responsibility, which becomes quickly internalised as common sense. If looking out for other people’s children is seen as a risk, actually doing it becomes an active choice – as opposed to something that we do simply because we are adults and children need our care.

This process of inter-generational estrangement is the result of powerful cultural forces, which impact upon individuals even when they are aware of the dangers inherent in society going down this route. But the national vetting scheme is not just one outcome of a negative cultural turn – it has played an active role in legitimising responsibility aversion, and making things much, much worse.

In a recent briefing document, the Manifesto Club (1), which has campaigned vigorously against the national vetting scheme since its inception, spells out the extent to which trust between adults and children is presented as the key problem to be addressed. The convoluted and arbitrary regulations about who needs to be subjected to a criminal records check, and why, rest upon the degree to which an adult has had the opportunity to develop a ‘relationship of trust’ with the child or children with whom they are interacting.

So, as the Manifesto Club points out, an adult who volunteered once a month for January, February and March will have to be registered with the vetting database, but if that adult volunteered once a month for January, February and April, he or she would not. This is because, apparently, contact over three consecutive months provides the basis for a trust relationship to develop – whereas if the volunteer had a month off in the middle, presumably the kids would forget all about this adult and he or she would become a stranger again.

Anybody who knows children – or understands the bare minimum about human relationships – must see how bizarre it is for civil servants to draw clear lines about the point at which a trust relationship develops or does not develop, as though we are talking here about how long it takes a cake to rise in the oven. But while the essential idiocy (and waste of resources) involved in this scheme might make you chuckle, the principle upon which it is based is no laughing matter.

To view the fact that children learn to trust adults as a danger point, rather than an essential aspect of inter-generational collaboration, codifies the idea that adults’ impact upon children should be assumed to be malign and predatory rather than positive and nurturing. It perverts the profoundly human impulse that adults and children want to care for one another, and seeks to replace the impulse of care with the imperative of distance. This can only dim the pleasure gained from adults and children in their encounters with one another, and reinforce the assumption that bringing up children is something that parents must do alone.

If this is not the kind of world in which we want to raise our families, we should challenge the national vetting scheme and the assumptions that lie behind it. Signing the Manifesto Club’s petition against the vetting database (see here) is a good place to start.

Jennie Bristow edits the website Parents With Attitude, and is co-author of Licensed to Hug (Civitas, 2008). Her new book, Standing Up To Supernanny, will be published by Societas in September 2009. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).) Email Jennie {encode=”jennie@bristow.com” title=”here”}.

For the Manifesto Club’s campaign against vetting see here

Read on:

A guide to subversive parenting

(1) Regulating Trust – Who will be on the Vetting Database? Manifesto Club, 31 July 2009 (PDF)

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