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Let kids off the leash

The child safety industry is stifling children's freedom to socialise and casting a shadow over the efforts of youth workers, says Stuart Waiton.

Last week I was invited to speak at a conference in Ireland on the issue of the obsession with child safety. The Olympic Sports Club, which made the invitation, has been shocked by the regulations now faced in organising children's sports events and has taken a refreshingly critical stance.

Rather than simply accepting the new child safety regulations, it has organised a series of debates about the issue.

Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, the organisers are already coming under pressure from their governing bodies about their questioning approach. I feel in hindsight I should have warned them that raising a question about child safety in today's climate is a major no-no.

I have had the "pleasure" of attending a child safety seminar myself recently and sat among silent youth workers who, only after the event, raised their concerns privately and in whispers about the damaging implications of the raft of safety initiatives and child safety policy developments they face at work.

Policies that instruct adults working with children not to touch them if they fall over and always to ensure another adult is present when giving a lift to a child have been a major concern to a number of Scout leaders I know, who were considering calling it a day.

As one elderly woman said to me: "I have been taking kids to camp for 30 years and now I feel I am under suspicion for giving a crying child a hug."

Similar concerns have been raised by a group of researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University who have found that concerns about child safety - and more specifically child abuse - have led to "considerable concern and uncertainty" about the most innocent of interactions by adults working with children.

On a slightly different note, but still within the rubric of child safety, last week I received my first school leaflets from my son John who started school last month. Naturally enough, the information I received was not about my child's education but about his safety to and from school.

"Seat belts and child restraints" was the first patronising and tedious flier, coupled with a "Safe Start" leaflet about the problems of both driving my child to school and letting him walk to school by himself.

Government research, it tells me, "has shown that children cannot judge the speed and distance of moving traffic until they are at least 10 years old".

So I guess I'll have to follow government instructions and keep a leash on John until he is at least 10 - and then no doubt receive a leaflet about the problem of childhood obesity.

The issue of child safety is often associated with parental concerns about perverts, today commonly known as paedophiles, but framing all childhood experiences as dangerous under the banner of "at risk" helps recreate a world where every childhood experience and every adult-child relationship is judged purely in terms of danger and safety.

The problematisation of children's lives and adult-child relationships in this way means that children's freedom to socialise is undermined, while the admirable efforts of voluntary and employed youth workers are recast as suspect. The entirely positive notion of in loco parentis within schools is undermined, as teachers fret over their contact and relationships with children.

Ironically, at the same time that in loco parentis is being undermined by the child safety obsession, parent judgment is likewise being undermined by leaflets sent by schools instructing us how to look after our children - at a time when children, by almost every statistical measurement, are safer than they have ever been.

A positive approach to child and youth development can emerge only once the present child safety industry is questioned - something those of us at Generation Youth Issues plan to establish in the coming year. Anyone who feels like taking a "risk", rather than whispering after the event, get in touch.

Stuart Waiton is a director of GenerationYouthIssues.org.

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