Healthy relationships between adults and children are being eroded by wrong-headed child protection laws. Emma Seith reports
Children are being taught that all touch is sexual, because of rules and regulations that say an adult cannot be trusted to apply suncream or to comfort them when they cry, according to Scotland's Children's Commissioner.
Healthy relationships between adults and children are being eroded by child protection laws which frequently have the protection of adults, not children, at their heart, Kathleen Marshall said.
"We have to ask ourselves, are our actions motivated by a desire to protect children or to protect ourselves as adults from suspicion and blame?" she told delegates at a conference last week in Edinburgh, entitled "Anti-Bullying and Child Protection: have we gone too far?"
At the same time, children could be grossly under-protected in other areas of their lives, she argued. "The same children that live in residential care and have to do a risk assessment before they can ride a bike or who can't go near water without being tied by a rope to a member of staff or a tree are, in large parts of Scotland, being pushed out the door at 16 because their beds are needed for other young ones."
She quoted a case where a 16-year-old had been moved into accommodation with a convicted murderer. "We asked the local authority, why was it OK for a murderer to be in the same bed and breakfast accommodation as a 16-year-old? 'He wasn't on the sex offenders register,' they said."
Mrs Marshall was caught up in "under-age sex furore" headlines last week, after newspapers claimed she had "provoked an outcry" by proposing it should be legal for children as young as 13 to have sex.
The reports sprang from her response to proposed changes in the law, which would de-criminalise sex between 13- and 15-year-olds but still allow the prosecution of over-16s who have sex with a minor.
Mrs Marshall argued that teenagers were seldom prosecuted for having under-age sex. The current law, she concluded, was an empty and unnecessary threat.
"Do we need to threaten 13- to 15-year-olds with criminal law to encourage them to behave respectfully towards themselves and others in terms of sexual activity?" she asked.
"If we want to criminalise teenagers for having sex with each other because it sends out a 'big message', why not re-criminalise adultery?"
Mrs Marshall repeated her demand for adults accused of abusing children to be given anonymity until they were convicted. In research carried out by her office, 92 per cent of respondents said that fear of false allegations was putting them off working with children.
The conference, organised by the Anti-Bullying Network and funded by the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, questioned whether anti-bullying policies had, in fact, contributed to "a lessening of children's resilience".
Bullying, said Mrs Marshall, remained one of children's biggest fears. It was not a question of having gone too far in addressing it, but more whether the right things were being done to address their "real fears".
She recommended listening to children more, especially on issues such as cyber-bullying, since they were often "well ahead in terms of understanding and ability to use or misuse advances in information technology".
Cyber-bullying was being taken more seriously, now that websites targeting teachers had sprung up. "It's interesting that cyber-bullying is a big thing since adults are suffering from it," she said.
JUST ADD HOT WATER
We over-protect our children because we are afraid of death, believes Ewan Aitken, Church of Scotland minister and former education convener of the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.
We live in a "just add hot water and stir" world, where people believe fame will bring contentment, consumerism is rife, we are overloaded with information, people cannot find meaningfulness and instead see risk everywhere, he argued.
"We feel that if we make the world risk-free, we make it death-free," said Mr Aitken at last week's child protection conference, organised by the Anti-Bullying Network.
A tiny number of accidents on school trips had led to many being scrapped altogether, he said. Fear of risk had also prompted more parents to drive their children to school, resulting in children turning into "fat asthmatics who die young because we tried to avoid the reality of their deaths".
Calling for longer maternity and paternity leave, he said parents needed to make more time for their children so that deep relationships could form, giving them the confidence to handle, manage and live with risk rather than avoid it.
Wrapping children in cotton wool would suffocate, not liberate them, he concluded.
In a similar vein, Tim Gill, author of the book "No Fear: Growing Up in a Risk Averse Society", called for a return to "the lost art of benign neglect", when the only words of warning a parent gave a child as they headed out to play were: "Don't come back before tea-time."