Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Why are we so anxious about children?

On New Year's Eve, the Guardian reported that fourteen under fives are excluded every day for violence against teachers or fellow pupils. We should, of course, expect under fives to have the greatest difficulties in behaving acceptably in school. Many young children have passionate feelings, with little thought for consequences. Yet this has usually been balanced with a strong desire to please adults, to be liked and accepted in school.

So what might be causing the present problems? I expect some possible answers to this question will come quickly: the increasing pressure on little children to learn to read and write through formal instruction, the stresses experienced by many parents as they try to combine work with family life, perhaps the growing targeting of children by advertisers.

But I would like to suggest another factor: the culture of fear around childhood and young children. This is problematic in every way possible. In some nurseries and reception classes, children are hardly trusted with the most elementary responsibilities or freedoms, because adults are so fearful of the consequences. Children are kept in sight, confined to rooms and seats, and regulated in ways which would have simply been inconceivable a few decades ago. Whilst some children can tolerate this type of custodial schooling, there are others who cannot. What might have once been boisterous behaviour in the playground or indoors, unseen or wisely ignored, might now quickly escalate into a confrontation.

This fearfulness about what children might do if they were a little less regulated paradoxically goes along with a great deal of nervousness about setting the limits on behaviour children need as they grow up. Many parents are afraid to say no, afraid of public reaction and a “scene” if they try to curb their children’s behaviour. Similarly, swimming pool attendants, staff in parks and shops and all sorts of other people who would once have upheld standards of public behaviour are afraid to do this now. I think they may be afraid that the child’s parent will turn on them, or that they will be accused of some sort of child abuse.

But if we cannot overcome our anxieties about young children having freedom, and the worry that they will be somehow damaged by all sorts of ordinary adult interactions, then we can only expect to see a continuing rise in school exclusions, together with damage to children far beyond our worst fears.

Read Tim Gill on growing up in a risk averse society here (opens as a PDF in a new window)