Time to debate paranoia

Parents don't create panic in their children, it's the professionals, writes Stuart Waiton

his month, Kathleen Marshall, the Commissioner for Children and Young People, argued that it was time to have a debate about the paranoia surrounding children.

Parental concerns about strangers, Marshall usefully argued, was leading to children having a more restricted life, while other adults are less inclined to volunteer to work with children for fear of being accused of improper behaviour or having a claim made against them.

The concern about the declining richness of childhood has also recently been voiced by 110 "experts" on childhood, who expressed concern about a "junk" childhood filled with television, the internet, unhealthy food and a lack of parental support.

I, like Marshall, have concerns about the limits being placed on aspects of children and young people's lives today; the youth research group Generation Youth Issues, that I helped create, was established with this in mind. But a balance needs to be found about how "rich" or impoverished we understand childhood to be today.

To start with, the fact that we can all afford so much so-called junk today should be seen as a sign of progress, not as a problem. We are, it is worth reminding ourselves, generally healthier and wealthier than we have ever been. It is also the case that, because of this and despite some real limitations on the amount of free time young people are allowed, they are often involved in a variety of clubs and activities that their parents may never have had the chance to be involved in.

The variety of gadgets - computers, mobile phones, games machines and so on - is also enough to make an ex-games junkie like myself envious of young people today. In the past, the fact that even some of the poorest could afford to buy these services and gadgets would have been seen as a positive development.

Today, for many "child experts" and commentators, "stuff" that parents provide for their children is increasingly described as "junk" - junk food, junk television, junk on the internet and so on. Behind much of their concern for children, however, is a thinly-veiled snobbery about "junk people".

Similarly, the concern with the parental panic about stranger danger is often understood in a somewhat one-sided way by our child experts who, like Marshall, often blame the media for whipping up these exaggerated concerns.

We do, as the commissioner argues, live in "a culture that is driven by fear". But this should not be understood as a problem of the gullible public being hoodwinked by reactionary tabloid headlines and campaigns, but rather recognise that it is the Government and professionals who have institutionalised "child safety" as part of everyday life.

It is not "junk parents" who have fences in our schools, introduced vetting for all those working with children, or created a litigious culture. It is the "enlightened" professionals who are responsible.

Just over a year ago, I noted in this paper how, for example, a professional conference about the dangers of the internet helped inflame fears about paedophiles. The conference flier had a quote from Cathy Jamieson, the Minister for Justice, stating that "those who carry out (child) abuse are clever and they are cunning. The internet that can open up the doors of learning is also the internet they can exploit to reach the child they can abuse."

At this conference, not only did the children's commissioner, who was in attendance, do little to quell this panic, she also made the statement that "bullying is a crime".

This outlook typifies that of the "caring professionals" who are undermining the "richness of childhood" by seeing it as a state of vulnerability. Not only, it seems, should parents be "fearful and paranoid"

about paedophiles, but also of other children.

To challenge the restricted lives that children have today, we need to confront not "junk parents", but the junk professionals who are the carriers of today's panic.

Stuart Waiton is director of GenerationYouthIssues.org

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