Rigid codes of 'procedure' about how to deal with the young are stifling relationships between generations, says Stuart Waiton
eading my son's first school report at the end of the last term, it was difficult to work out whether he was actually good - or for that matter bad - at anything in particular. The report itself was extremely professional, covering a vast area of John's first year at school - yet it remained somehow distant and almost detached.
Discussing this with John's teachers, my wife discovered that the school is encouraged to use set sentences from a "pull-down" menu created by the authority. The result is that it becomes more difficult for teachers to engage with the specific personalities of the children they are teaching when writing these reports.
John's school has been excellent so far and, when discussing his progress face to face with his teachers, they are more than happy to give their personal and professional judgement on his progress. However, when professional judgement is encouraged to be mediated through bureaucratic procedures, the result is that a more honest, and in fact a more accurate, picture of a child's development is to some degree lost.
"Procedures" in how to deal with children and young people today influence a raft of personal and professional relationships and, despite the promotion of caring for and teaching the "whole child", the proceduralisation of relationships appears to be undermining more genuine human interactions.
Friends of mine, for example, who have been running cub and scout groups for decades, complain that, under their new child safety rules, they are no longer expected to cuddle or even touch a child if they fall over and hurt themselves. They plan to ignore these new "procedures", but the very fact that they are aware of them has made them question how they are seen by other adults and children.
At the other extreme is my daughter Lily's old nursery, where hugging appeared to be a procedure itself and young nursery workers created a cuddle culture which seemed almost as unnatural as the position of my friends who are meant to keep their hands to themselves.
For parents, the "correct" response to a child's behaviour has also become a less spontaneous activity, as child experts give out endless advice as to the most appropriate way to bring up children. Numerous parents are now getting "tuition" from home-school link workers about how to raise their children. The recent government promotion of parenting classes to prevent future antisocial behaviour looks set to institutionalise still further the professionalisation of parenting.
The irony of all of these developments is that, rather than helping to form positive relationships between adults and children, the increasing number of rules and procedures appears to be undermining both professional judgements and spontaneous personal connections between generations.
Rules in schools, youth groups and even homes are useful for both adults and children in setting boundaries and expectations. However, these rules were previously established more by individuals themselves with children.
Some teachers or parents shouted to get things done, others used humour or were more patient; between them, children learned to live and relate to different adult personalities in their lives.
Learning about and from "personalities" is an enriching part of growing up and encourages children not only to understand how to relate to different types of adults, but also to understand themselves with reference to them.
The proceduralisation of adult-child relationships is a negative development based on a loss of trust in adult authority. It encourages adults to question their own instincts and undermines their ability to be a "whole person" when relating to children, consequently preventing "real" human relationships from forming.
Adults, of course, still have and use their personalities when dealing with young people, but they are increasingly being encouraged to look over their shoulders and relate to "codes of conduct" before reacting to events.
Rather than worrying about the whole child, perhaps we should be more concerned with the loss of the whole adult as the straitjacket of procedures tightens and makes us all more uptight and unable to express ourselves with the children we care for.
Stuart Waiton is a director of www.GenerationYouthIssues.org.