What point freedom if no space to learn?

25th January 2008 at 00:00
The issue of "cotton wool kids", or the lack of freedom that young people have to hang out or play, is one I have been interested in for more than a decade. Last year, it appeared to have become a more recognised problem - even by politicians.

Unfortunately, in today's political climate, as soon as you hear the politicos talk about freedom, run for the hills: what they mean by being "free" is usually its opposite.

Perhaps the best example of this approach came towards the end of last year from the influential left-leaning think tank Demos, which produced a report looking at the problem of young people "disappearing from public spaces".

The report raised a number of legitimate concerns about the decline in places for young people to hang out, and the tendency for them to do more regulated activities while informally socialising less and less. There has been a kind of political point-scoring and an approach of getting "tough on children", Celia Hannon, co-author of the report, argued, with the cry of "antisocial behaviour" being used to justify moving youngsters out of public places. "Children should be seen and heard," Hannon stated. I agree.

However, in an attempt to resolve this problem, the report then argued for an antisocial behaviour hotline for children to phone to "point the finger back" at adults who attempted to stop them playing outside. This may have been a headline-grabbing silly idea but, nevertheless, it tells you a lot about Hannon and the general Demos approach.

The reality, I suspect, is that adults tell kids off face-to-face less than ever today, because they have been encouraged to phone the same type of helplines now being promoted for children.

Arguing that children should have such a helpline would only mean that another area of children and young people's lives ended up being negotiated by officials rather than the youngsters themselves. Some adults may be crabbit-faced moaners - but that is their prerogative, and it is part of growing up for young people to learn how do deal with this. It is called freedom, warts and all.

Without this type of free exchange between people, there is no "public" in any meaningful sense. But I suspect a genuinely free public would see the likes of Demos run for the hills themselves - or possibly be chased up by them.

Stuart Waiton is director of GenerationYouthIssues.org.

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