Childhood is not a health and safety risk

Child Safety Week won't prevent accidents, but it will prevent kids from being allowed to enjoy themselves.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

For those unfortunate enough to have missed the events and promotional guff at assorted UK children’s centres and playgroups, schools and health centres, this week is Child Safety Week. That’s right, a whole week dedicated to raising awareness of the dangers that accompany the drinking of bleach.

That’s not entirely fair, of course. The sentiments behind Child Safety Week, chiefly organised by the Child Accident Prevention Trust (CAPT), seem perfectly admirable. Who, after all, wants to see children hurt or injure themselves? So a week dedicated to advising parents on how best to deal with the risks their little ones face in and outside home must surely be a good thing, right?

Well, no, not exactly. For a start, the tone of the week-long campaign is as inescapably patronising as the content. Here’s some sample advice to parents: ‘Always put my hot drink well out of reach. Look for safe places in my home’; ‘Use the safety harness on the buggy and highchair every time’; ‘Keep all medicines and cleaning things out of reach and sight in a high cupboard’. Even for non-parents who are not experiencing these things everyday, that all seems like common sense. Do you really need to be told that an industrial size bottle of methylated spirits is best not kept next to a child’s toy box? Do you really need to be advised that a nice steaming mug of black coffee should probably be kept out of the reach of toddlers? Does it really require CAPT to tell you that a child is likely to wriggle out of a buggy unless they’re strapped in? And not only is the message of Child Safety Week bordering on the eye-blisteringly obvious, it’s wrapped up in a condescending comic-book form. That is, if you, as a parent, ‘pledge’ to strap your kid into his high chair, or keep a coffee out of her reach, you will receive a Child Safety Week ‘Safety Hero’ certificate. Yippee.

The patronising form enveloping the patronising content is not insignificant. It reveals the extent to which campaigns like this, and countless others run by organisations such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, treat parents like children. These campaigns and awareness-raising events assume that parents are incapable of looking after their own children without expert, organisational guidance – even when it seems to involve telling parents that should boiling water come into contact with children, it is likely to do some harm. And in treating parents this way, in assuming their incapacity, it undermines parents’ authority and confidence.

It is also not exactly clear that all this awareness-raising of risks of which everyone is already aware is very effective. And that’s because there is no causal relationship between a chat with parents at a children’s centre and what might happen afterwards. You see, that’s the thing about accidents: they happen. By their very nature, they are not in our control. You might be all too conscious of the risk posed by a pot of tea to a grabby infant, but, perhaps distracted by a knock at the door, you turn round quickly and knock the pot on to the floor near your child. An accident. It happens.

In fact, about the only thing such campaigns are effective at doing is heightening parental anxiety about the risks posed to children. So while CAPT does issue the caveat that it doesn’t want to ‘wrap children up in cotton wool’, its actions speak otherwise. The ceaseless promotion of risk awareness, the insistence that parents be ever more vigilant, will inevitably incline those on the receiving end of these campaigns to clasp their children just that little bit closer.

Ultimately, the contemporary obsession with preventing accidents is wrongheaded. No one wants a child to break his arm falling off a climbing frame, or to crack her head open skipping, but sadly, these things do occasionally happen. The only way you can prevent such accidents is to ban playgrounds and outlaw skipping. This would certainly prevent certain accidents, but it would also prevent children from enjoying themselves.

A mature society needs to accept that accidents happen, that bumps, scrapes, and the occasional leg break, are an inexorable part of growing up. Yet, too often today, every aspect of childhood seems to come with a health-and-safety warning. It’s time to loosen those apron strings.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics Politics


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