Today's children suffer from too much parenting

9th October 2009 at 01:00
The obsession with safety and mollycoddling is psychologically damaging, experts claim

Children spend too much time with their parents and are becoming psychologically damaged as a result, an influential gathering of experts on childhood heard this week.

Speakers united to rail against a modern "obsession" with risk and an increasingly "atomised" society that places too much responsibility on parents to raise children.

Tim Gill, a specialist on childhood and children's play, said that, until recently, it had been perceived normal for parents to let their children out to play, but now it was seen as a "sign of negligence".

This was symptomatic of an obsession with safety that was denying children experiences which helped them "deal with what life throws at them". It extended to schools, where playgrounds were becoming "boring, sterile places that no self-respecting child would want to spend their time in".

Mr Gill, director of the Children's Play Council (now Play England) from 1997 to 2004, also criticised government-driven vetting of people who work with children, arguing it was designed to protect institutions more than children. He spoke to The TESS before addressing the Children in Scotland conference in Bannockburn, where the theme was "encouraging confidence in a risk-averse society".

Another speaker was Tom Hodgkinson, who advocates less hands-on parenting in his book The Idle Parent. He was inspired by an essay on parenting submitted by DH Lawrence to the Times Educational Supplement in 1919 (and later rejected). It included provocative suggestions such as taking children away from their mothers, but Mr Hodgkinson believes that behind such rhetoric are ideas which are more relevant than ever today - in particular, that children suffer from "too much parenting".

Mr Hodgkinson, who has three children aged under 10, pointed to psychologist Oliver James's argument that mollycoddling children can be psychologically damaging in adult life and leave people "unable to cope in the world"; the more children are left alone, "the more they learn for themselves".

It would be healthier for a wider circle of people to look after children, as is common in countries such as China and Mexico, but UK society had become "atomised" and too reliant on the nuclear family.

All parents were "made to feel really bad" if they could not cope, particularly mothers who did not feel the strong bond to their child they were told to expect. He saw some merit in the aristocratic tradition of delegating children to nannies, as distance from children could be mutually beneficial.

Mr Hodgkinson argued that children had become disconnected from nature because of health and safety regulations, which had become "the number one priority in life". Young children were taken to indoor play areas that resembled "asylums" when they would benefit far more from a walk in the woods.

Constant scare stories about paedophiles also convinced parents to keep their children close at hand, which left children less confident to handle life's ups and downs. "When parents say `you can't be too careful', you can," he said.

He also believes parents feel inadequate because they cannot keep pace with demands for material goods: "It's really difficult to try and disconnect with the whole world of consumer rubbish."

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