3 March 2007
Britain is great when it comes to friendliness towards dogs – I know this because my very pretty dog never fails to draw admiring comments, strokes, questions and unfailing willingness to throw her ball for her. Today, British children have far fewer expectations of friendliness towards them and miss out on all that warm positive interest that my dog enjoys. I still find this rather strange and sad because I grew up in a country – Ireland - where the reverse was true – my dog was ignored but I wasn't.
But now, we all live under the fear that any sign of friendliness towards children in public places will be regarded with suspicion. Toddlers onwards are told about Stranger Danger - right from the beginning the world is a frightening place and adults outside the family are not to be trusted.
Every generation of children is vulnerable to these and other dangers – fairytales from Little Red Riding Hood to Hansel and Gretel have allowed children to explore these dangers and ultimately triumph over them. The wolf is chopped open; Hansel and Gretel push the witch into the oven and the children have moved from victim to empowerment, from vulnerability to strength.
Living in fear of the worst possible scenario – some predatory male just waiting to abduct our child - victimises us and our children. Responding to life with fear is a depressing, joyless message for our children, unfairly imprisoning them in their homes and destroying the very links that make our communities safe in the first place. We keep our children locked indoors and isolated from the community more than Denmark, Sweden and Germany. After school, children in these countries play outdoors, free from adult supervision and interference.
These countries did well in the UNICEF report that looked at children’s wellbeing in 21 of the richest countries. Britain, obsessed by risk free childhood, came bottom of the league. Ironically our children end up feeling unsafe, depressed, experiencing poorer relationships, and are more likely to engage in risky behaviour, become pregnant and get involved in drugs.
The rich childhood experience of imaginative self-generated play is fundamental to a child’s healthy physical, psychological and intellectual development – the wealth of research findings across many scientific disciplines bears this out. Children are kinaesthetic – physical experience and brain development are interdependent and according to neurologist Frank R Wilson, the development of physical skills can further intense commitment to learning.
Children are social animals and learn to moderate their behaviour through interaction with other children but according to Tim Gill, formerly of Play England, the most profound change in the everyday social lives of children is not the amount of time spent with parents but the reduction of time spent with other children. Children in the UK may be imprisoned and controlled for so long that when they finally insist on freedom, probably in early adolescence, they have very little idea of how their environment works, and they either go wild or are overwhelmed.
Nor is it a cocoon of safety from which they emerge – most children will have had years of violence, pornography and cynicism from computer games and television.
When we encounter them cheekily cocking a pretend gun behind the back of David Cameron, hanging around in furtive little groups, we need to remember that they are still children. Making fully-fledged adults is a slow process – the human brain is not fully mature until the early twenties – the ability for abstract thinking and sound judgement is not fully integrated with the emotions until then.
If they are not the children we want it is because we are not the adults they need. Children certainly thrive when boundaries are clear and adhered to, but respect is offered to those who give respect. Politicians and media do huge damage to relationships with children and young people - while they wallow in the name calling of children it is they who are the real hooligans – mindless and irresponsible endlessly throwing proverbial stones and refusing fully inhabit adulthood – usually male, these psychologically castrated males are more inadequate than the boys they attack.
We like the doggyness of dogs and we need to learn to like the childishness of children. Children need to be praised and honoured for being good at being children and not constantly criticised for being bad at being adults. Child policies need to be based on sound science and not sound bites - so that we work with the child's natural development and not against it. We need to create more exciting child friendly environments – become less physically protective but more protective of childhood.