Forget the cotton wool

7th November 2003 at 00:00
Young people should be allowed to get on with their rites of passage and not be treated as vulnerable victims, says Stuart Waiton

This year's Oxford University freshers were encouraged to use a coach to take them from one building to another, "in case they got lost". The buildings were 500 yards apart. The "school run", it appears, is now part of the protection programme organised by the Oxford Student Union, for some of the most intelligent students in Britain.

Glasgow Caledonian University beats this hands down. Having battled each year to get across the various safety messages to students with limited success, it hired the Royal Concert Hall and put on a play for freshers called Sex, Drugs and a Bacon Roll. The point was to make them aware of the difficulties they may face organising their money, having relationships, drinking alcohol and particularly with the local neds. The "humorous" play, it was hoped, would get the message across better than the usual tens of thousands of safety leaflets.

If these were one-off examples, we could ignore them. But, as sociologist Frank Furedi points out in his new book Therapy Culture, treating students as vulnerable victims is increasingly becoming the norm. One question Furedi raises is to what degree are we undermining the ability of university students to be self-sufficient by constantly providing them with "advice and support". This is a question we could equally ask about the lives of school students.

The sense of vulnerability that adults feel about their own lives, argues Furedi, means that increasingly we view every new experience or challenge faced by a young person growing up today as a significant danger. In a sense, the rites of passage we expected young people to go through and deal with in the past are now seen as simply too traumatic.

Look at any rite of passage and you find it has been problematised and professionalised, due to the potential problems and dangers which have become attached to these aspects of growing up. The transition from primary to high school, for example, is a pretty scary experience, but something we all did and dealt with. Today it is seen as something that children cannot cope with alone.

Underage drinking - something we were all discouraged from doing and all did without too much bother - is today discussed in terms of violent crime and addiction, something that again is too problematic for young people to deal with without advice, counselling and even policing.

For many young people, that first big fight in high school was probably their most terrifying experience but, again, something that we managed to handle. Today in comparison, even verbal bullying is understood as something that can lead to suicide.

Most worrying of all is the gradual emergence of "relationship education" in schools. Here the most intimate and private area of a teenager's life has been colonised by professionals filled with messages of disease and danger associated with HIV and abuse.

School days may not be the "best of their lives", but surely nor are they the nightmare that is often depicted. An exaggerated sense of vulnerability associated with young people growing up has meant that over time "support" mechanisms have been established in schools and also in universities which work on the assumption that young people simply cannot cope on their own.

The danger is that this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Among many child development experts there is a growing recognition that the over-protection of young children is becoming a serious problem for their development, and the critical term "cotton wool kids" has emerged to question this trend. Today we need a similar term to challenge the over-protection of young adults that threatens to hold them back and limit their expectations of what they are capable of.

Thankfully, a number of students in Oxford when asked about their "school run" said they felt that it was insulting and suggested the student union provide them with a map rather than a bus. Now that sounds like good grown-up advice to me.

Stuart Waiton is a director of GenerationYouthIssues.org.

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