Is the world a more dangerous place for children, or is it increasingly the convention to represent it that way? It always was dangerous – a century ago accidents with horses, spillages of noxious fluids, the intermingling of workplaces with living spaces, open fires and gas lighting meant that child deaths through accidents in the UK were about 50 000 per annum, very high indeed. Now we have one of the lowest rates of child accidents of any industrialized country. The accident rates have been reduced so
dramatically partly through progressive health and safety legislation. Yet it is not societal concern that continues to keep accidents low. Rather, it is the insistence that keeping children accident free is a personal, parental concern, an individualization of responsibility.
Road traffic, for example, is far more dangerous, pervasive and polluting than it was even fifty years ago. It is proportionately more dangerous for poorer children, whose accident rates are significantly higher than those of middleclass children.7 Yet protection against road accidents is
regarded as an individual, parental, matter rather than as a societal matter. Hence the irony of car advertisements which stress how they offer protection and safe conveyance to the children whose parents can afford the car; although the increase in cars that would come through such purchases represent a danger to all children, and contribute to increased levels of lead in the atmosphere. Parents who take their children to school by car are castigated, but the ease and safety of car transport at a personal level far outweighs considerations of the greater good. Road traffic presents a real danger to children. A societal solution – traffic control and restricted car use – is the most effective way of addressing it. Instead we teach children the highway code or offer them limited protection by providing lollipop ladies at school crossings.
However, in another area, in the interpretation of health and safety legislation towards children who are looked after by people other than their parents, there is arguably an excess of zeal. Such zealousness has also become individualized, an anxiety on the part of childcare workers that they may be held personally responsible for the normal bumps and bruises of childhood.
The 1989 Children Act required all children outside of their homes and looked after by others for more than two hours a day to be closely surveilled by adults. Young children spending their days in nurseries are often very restricted in their movement, and protected against every possible – and impossible – contingency. I have described how, in one daycare nursery I visited, the only exercise children had was to go to a carpeted exercise room, where they were allowed to walk on a beam six inches off the floor, provided they held the hand of a childcare worker whilst doing so.8 In another ‘model’ training nursery, the very small outside yard was rubber coated and completely bare. There were no non-rubberized surfaces, no nooks or crannies, no unsurveilled spaces. The manager explained to me that 15 years ago her daughter had fallen in a schoolyard and damaged her front teeth, and she never wanted another child to go through the same experience. Because of a freak accident a long time ago, a generation of children were being forbidden any physical activity or challenges.
These incidents are unfortunately typical of the childcare in the UK. The childcare system has its historic roots in the child welfare movement, catering for vulnerable children. The training of childcare workers, and the health and safety legislation that governs daycare nurseries, emphasize children’s vulnerability and negate children’s capacities and in particular their ability to negotiate the physical world. It is above all a surveillance system.9
The Government’s most recent green paper on children at the time of writing, Every Child Matters (2003)10, is almost entirely about child protection and control. The Government states that it aims to reduce levels of educational failure, ill-health, substance misuse, teenage pregnancy, abuse and neglect, crime and anti-social behaviour. The tenor of the paper is that the nuisance children cause must be addressed. There is very little in it that sees children as a resource, as fellow citizens, as potentially willing contributors and participants in society.
The monitoring of the press over the two – month period also produced a series of concerns about the dangers posed to children, including pigeon droppings, dogs, foxes, babywalkers, dehydration, a syringe in a toy medical kit, broken fences, and above all fears of children being molested or abducted. This letter to a national paper sums it up:
The answer about why today’s children cannot have fun without parental supervision is simple. We had one quality missing in the life of children today, freedom. Provided we returned to the nest at the agreed time, we could go where we wished and thereby develop our creative and imaginative skills without the need of adult help/or sophisticated toys. Now we are obsessed with protecting our children against traffic, abductions, molestations, mishaps on school trips, drugs – the list is endless.11
Parents in the UK are typically cautious and safety conscious, perhaps unwisely so, about their children’s physical prowess. In other countries, particularly in the Third World children are routinely expected to demonstrate more energy, more stamina and more robustness and expose themselves to risk – as John Muir did. We have coined the expression ‘hyperactive’ to describe children whose levels of physicality might once have been taken as normal.
Perhaps the greatest exaggerations of risk are in what is called ‘stranger danger’. The incidence of children who are molested or abducted in public spaces, shocking as it is, is very small, and has not increased significantly over the last century. Children are much more likely to suffer abuse and trauma at home, closed off from public view. However such incidents of strangers molesting children are greatly inflated and become national news. Prurience and voyeurism are stoked up by the press, and pursued by vigilante groups. At the time the research described below was being carried out, two girls had been abducted. The public hysteria and headlining was so great, that it became impractical to finish the research, since the answers became affected by what was seen as a monstrous danger lurking in the background for all unattended children.
The perceptions of children’s exposure to danger in turn reflect a public understanding of young children as passive, vulnerable and incapable (except for gangs of poor children who cause havoc on the streets). International and historical comparisons of childhood suggest that the UK in the twenty-first century represents an extreme view of the need to protect children.12 In Norway for example, it is common practice to expect young children in nurseries and schools to camp out in winter, in order to accustom themselves to harsh winters.13 Young children routinely undertake work and contribute to income maintenance and family well-being in or out of the home in the Third World. Children in many other places are viewed as more resilient, more able to fend for themselves and defend themselves, more capable of contributing to family welfare than we allow.14