walking to school

With all the hype and paranoia about parenting and the dangers faced by children, it is really good when some facts emerge. Figures published in The Economist reveal that children in the 1950’s were five times more likely to die before age five than today. Yet as it notes, in those days parents were far more likely to let their children roam free.

American figures show that in the 1950’s most children walked or rode to school. Today less than 10% do.

The numbers would be similar in Australia.

In a sign of the crazy times we live in an article in the New York Times chronicled some of the more outrageous “crimes” against children. These are where the authorities got involved because of the obviously extreme danger to life and limb.

A mother in Georgia committed the heinous crime of letting her nine years old play in a park whilst she worked nearby to feed her family. The child had a cell phone to contact mum in case of need. The mother thought it was better for a nine year old to play in a park than sit in a fast food place on a summer day.

After being asked by a busy body where her mother was the police were called. The mother was arrested and jailed and the child placed in the care of social services.

A widowed mother left her 10 and five year old at home whilst she went to a college class. A neighbour called the police. It took two years of legal battles to get the children out of state care.

Radley Balko in the Washington Post calls this the “Criminalization of parenthood”. It reflects the use of legal and state power to interfere with normal parenting and infringe the rights of parents and children. Hanna Rosin’s essay called The Overprotected Kid” in The Atlantic, notes that unstructured play has become viewed as weird and dangerous and that childhood must be rigorously structured and supervised.

In turn bystanders and public servants see any deviation from constant supervision as evidence of parental neglect.

There are other elements to this problem including the misplaced fear of abduction. This is less likely than ever to occur but because every one is broadcast right around the world we feel it is common.

And what Gary Olmstead has described as the bad Samaritan. Instead of either minding their own business or at least contacting the parent, passers by immediately call in authorities.

This dystopia has reached its zenith in Scotland. The Children and Young People (Scotland) Act means that every child born will have a specific state appointed professional to oversee their interests.

Isn’t that the role of parents?

The “named person” may be a midwife or health worker and later on a teacher. It is not clear how many each state named person will be responsible for.

And what if they have children of their own? Apparently they are fit to be responsible for others children but no doubt someone else will have to be “guardian” for theirs. Just think for one minute about the relationship between parents and the state sponsored busy body. It will be predicated on mutual distrust – with the child in the middle.

Orwell predicted a state gone mad for 1984. Thirty years on in 2014 it has arrived.

The paranoia about child safety when children have never been safer is necessarily strange. It has grown from the obsession with screening for everything and “early Intervention”.

This may be OK if there is a problem and intervening makes a difference. Generally there is no problem and intervention makes things worse.

Ultimately as all the essayists quoted above conclude, we need to rescue normal childhood. This is one where children learn to take risks appropriate for their age, play in parks and ride bikes.

As The Economist notes “Children learn how to handle risks by taking a few, such as climbing trees or taking the train, even if that means scrapped knees and seeing the occasional weirdo. Freedom is exhilarating. It also fosters self reliance”.

No parent gets everything right. Some do better than others. Virtually all will do better than state employees unrelated to the child (regardless of their good intentions).

We need to get the nanny state out of parenting.