Burn, baby, burn

We have become so fearful about any risk to children that even some welcome sunshine is viewed as a threat.

Jane Sandeman

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Topics Politics

Once upon a time, we viewed the sun with joy. A bit of sun amid Britain’s normally gloomy climate was a cause for celebration. When comedy duo Morecambe and Wise closed the show, it made sense to sing ‘Bring Me Sunshine’, because we loved it and we didn’t get enough of it. But in recent years, official advice about the sun has been underpinned by the threat of impending doom, especially when it comes to kids.

As anyone who lives in Britain may notice, the weather has been dark and dreary since last July. Frankly, the rain stopped for 10 days during the Olympics but seemed unremitting the rest of the time. In the past couple of weeks, however, there has been something of heatwave. But instead of this being seen as something to celebrate, horror stories abound. There are stories of children being so badly burned they need to go to hospital and warnings that exposing your children to the sun increases their chance of developing malignant melanoma later in life. A spokesman from Melanoma Action and Support Scotland stated: ‘Malignant melanoma is the most common cancer in young adults aged 15 to 34 in the UK and it happens from getting sunburn.’ With no apparent sense of irony, the spokesman went on to say that letting children get sunburnt ‘is a child-protection issue’.

I don’t doubt that a few children have been burnt as they played out in the sun. I suspect very few will have come to anything approaching serious harm. Yet alarm about the sun has been ratcheted up remarkably quickly in recent days. An article in the Telegraph last Sunday reported that a four-week-old baby had been referred to hospital with sunburn. By the next day, the Daily Mail was reporting that ‘dozens of hospitals said the heatwave had triggered a rise in severe sunburn cases among children, including babies as young as four weeks’. That single, unusual case in a very young child quickly morphed into a trend.

What purpose does it serve to cast a shadow over our little burst of summer? The result is that babies are now hidden under enormous Heath Robinson parasols sprouting from their prams. Once they escape the buggies, children are smothered in layers of sunblocking gloop the minute the weakest sunbeam manages to filter through a crack in the clouds. If you go to the seaside, children are covered from head to toe in the most extraordinary beachwear. It is a brave parent now who would let their child frolic in the sun, sand and sea without a care in the world without first receiving three coats of sunblock and being plonked in outfits that would meet the approval of the sternest Victorian matron.

The problem is not that children are underprotected from the sun, but are overprotected from the sun. It is the sad reality of our age that children now have to be protected from everything; to be a good parent is to exhibit loudly and clearly that you are acting as a vigilant guardian against every minor mishap your children could encounter. Those parents who let their children splash around in the swimming pool at the holiday camp in two-piece bathing costumes at any time between 11am and 4pm are looked down upon by other parents who have clothed their children in long-sleeved, long-legged one-pieces and forced them to stay in the shade.

Nor is it just the sun that invokes this paranoia. We teach our children from the earliest age that they must be fearful of everything. Parents relay the message transmitted from on high that unless their offspring are covered and smothered and hidden away, whether from the sun or any of the other panic-inducing risks out there, then they will get cancer or some other terrible catastrophe will ensue.

No one says don’t be sensible in the sun – parents through the years have made their children cover up when the sun was too hot or taken them indoors when their skins started to redden. They have trusted that as they got older, kids could learn to judge for themselves when it was nice to be in the sun and when it was going to burn them. But now things that once were seen as joyful are seen as threatening and officials and campaigners don’t trust adults and children to make even the simplest judgement of when it’s safe to soak up the sun.

Jane Sandeman is convenor of the Institute of Ideas Parents’ Forum.

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Topics Politics

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