Let children play, nanny, and keep your nose out of parenting

22nd February 2008 at 00:00
Do our children need the nanny state? The government's Children's Plan, published at the end of last year, promises "expert parenting advisers" in every local authority, a Parents' Panel "at the heart of government", a Child Health Strategy, a Staying Safe Action Plan, and so on and on. The old nanny state simply provided free orange juice for nursing mothers and free milk for schoolchildren. The new one draws up five-point plans and then marches out to lecture everybody on how to change nappies. Whether or not the children are hyperactive, the nanny is more so.

A government's proper concern is with the public realm. If it regulated that adequately, it would have less need to poke its nose into what ought to be private. There is no longer a department dedicated to education, which has been a public responsibility since 1870. Instead, we have a department for children and families as well as schools. Moreover, the minister in charge is an economist. The economy no longer serves private individuals; it is the other way round.

I doubt David Willetts, who leads the Conservatives' Childhood Review, would put it quite like that. But his latest working paper, More Ball Games, is the best political diagnosis I have seen of why our children are, according to Unicef, the most miserable in the developed world.

They don't, as Willetts sees it, need more top-down interventions; they need a culture and an environment that is friendly to them - friendly to real children, not to the idealised cherubs you might find in a Victorian painting.

Willetts believes, with Piaget, that "throwing things, hitting things, and putting things into water or sand" are crucial for children's development. They need to play in three dimensions, not in the two dimensions of a computer game. But the problem lies not so much with parenting - surveys show that parents spend four times as much time with their children now as they did in 1975 - as with the deterioration of the public space available to children. The feral children and thuggish youths who terrify old people in the streets are highly publicised. But most children don't go out, being more afraid of the anti-social element than the rest of us are.

Attempts at play are hamstrung by the motor car. Our child pedestrian death rate is among the highest in Europe, and if it is falling, it is because more children stay indoors. The streets are no longer designed for anybody on foot; they give priority to vehicles, so that goods reach shops and employees their workplaces at maximum speed. Children lose most. Only 20 per cent now play out in the streets regularly; 70 per cent of adults can recall doing so when they were children. If they go to playgrounds, they find them sterile, risk-averse and over-supervised. The scrubby bits of urban land where children once played are treated as "brownfield" sites, which must be used more "efficiently" and developed for shops, offices or houses. According to Willetts, the area where children are free to roam is a ninth of what it was a generation ago.

Some children, it is true, suffer neglect. But for the most part this is the most managed, supervised, mollycoddled and timetabled generation in history. The government proposes more supervision: more homework, more organised activities, more time in school, anything to keep children off the streets. Ministers should instead introduce more traffic restrictions (a 20mph speed limit in urban areas is long overdue); a planning regime that allows what economists call "inefficient land use"; laws that free playground supervisors from fear of being sued because a child grazes its knees; and a restoration of figures who can exercise flexible, light-touch authority, such as the bobby on the beat or the park-keeper. Those all concern the public realm and are therefore legitimate targets for government intervention. Except in extreme cases, parenting is not.

Peter Wilby, Former editor of the New Statesman and the Independent on Sunday.

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