risks doing more harm than good
by Sandra Dick
A BEWILDERED little girl is banned from giving her friends
Christmas presents at school, another sternly told sharing her birthday
cake breaches her school’s healthy-eating policy.
Elsewhere, the once traditional playground game of conkers is outlawed
as a danger sport, children are banned from climbing trees in case
they fall and parents told filming the school play is strictly forbidden.
Try entering a public swimming pool with a camera phone or video
mobile and there’s every chance your motives for being there
will be questioned: are you planning to snap your children as they
learn to swim or are you really a pervert?
Now librarians in West Lothian are being issued a set of guidelines
warning them against - among other things - allowing children to
sit on their knee at storytime for fear they may be branded paedophiles.
Staff in its 16 libraries and two mobile libraries are being told
to refrain from virtually all physical contact - even down to cuddling
a distressed child or tending to an injury.
The guidelines, argues the council, are necessary to protect staff
from complaints or accusations about their behaviour towards a child,
as well as to reassure anxious parents.
Of course, West Lothian Council is far from alone. Indeed, this
is just the latest in a long line of directives issued by nervous
organisations the length and breadth of the country which have left
adults having to think twice about throwing their arms around a
sobbing child, tending to a scraped knee or even speaking to a youngster
that doesn’t happen to be their own.
No wonder many parents and child-care experts are now questioning
whether the main reason for so many increasingly bizarre rules is
to protect organisations from today’s "claims culture"
- at the expense of children who are increasingly become "untouchables".
Frank Furedi, a sociologist at Kent University and author of child-care
book Paranoid Parenting, is among those who firmly believe the scales
have tipped much too far in the wrong direction. "Public concern
with safety has reached obsessive proportions," he warns.
"Directives such as this library’s are all about distancing
children from adults - we are being told not to have anything to
do with children who are not our own. That’s a very powerful
message, it suggests children’s lives are no-go areas for
There is, he warns, a serious impact on children’s view of
the adult world as a result.
"It means we are telling them that adults are a group of predators
- hardly role models for the future generation. Also, human physical
contact is part of everyday behaviour, but we are telling our children
that only mum and dad can do that: we are complicating the whole
area of emotional and physical contact.
"If children have this idea of what adults are, then what
kind of adults can we expect them to become?"
The kind, it seems, who have to think twice about offering their
friends Christmas presents in case, as one five-year-old Sussex
girl was recently told by her school, it puts "undue pressure"
on other parents to buy return gifts. Child psychologist Dr Pat
Spungin, who runs www.raisingkids.co.uk, agrees today’s stringent
regulations surrounding our children’s safety may well have
an impact on our their future behaviour.
"I believe we are seeing a culture now where children are
fearful of touch unless it’s from someone who is familiar
to them or someone who is very close to them - and that’s
a great shame," she says.
Hazel Kennedy, 55, a Sea Scout petty officer from Leith, agrees
that the rules are troublesome but insists they are there to protect
everyone. "It’s not easy when you have a youngster who
is hurt or upset, your natural instinct is to help them straight
away in whatever way you can," she says.
"Instead, if you do have to help them by, say, treating a
wound, you always have to make sure there is someone else in the
room with you. I sometimes find myself training just one child at
a time, so I always make sure I keep a door wide open.
"It’s a shame," adds Hazel, of Tolbooth Wynd. "But
the rules are there to protect us all."
At Girlguiding Scotland, strict "Safe from Harm" policies
are in place which advise physical contact should be avoided where
possible. A spokesperson explains: "When it does occur it should
be ‘appropriate’ and with the girl’s permission.
"Working within those guidelines, however, leaders also need
to create a supportive, caring and happy atmosphere. We recognise
that a girl may approach her leader and wish to make physical contact
- such as a Rainbow [aged five to seven] needing to be comforted
because she’s missing her parents or hurt herself.
"In those instances leaders would return a hug that is initiated
but would then set about occupying her with something else."
But why have we became such a jittery nation, terrified that our
every move in the presence of a child could land us in court?
Craig Connal QC, commercial litigation partner at McGrigors solicitors,
which has offices in Edinburgh and nationwide, says today’s
regulations are a result of organisations’ attempts to head-off
the threat of legal action or even the costs of investigating a
"Employers may be thinking of their own pockets, the best
interests of their staff and, in other cases, they may be driven
by insurers who are asking what steps they have taken to avoid claims
and what instructions have they given staff."
"It’s often forgotten when people look at statistics
and debate whether there is a claims culture, that it’s not
simply measured by the number of cases that end up in court or the
decisions. Say it’s the head librarian who is sitting at home
under suspension while a complaint is investigated - all that public
cost has been incurred."
Iain Whyte, Tory group leader at Edinburgh City Council, is another
who believes the balance has tipped too far in the wrong direction.
"We are getting to a stage where we are taking children away
to protect them from a few small minority of people or the very
few occasions where something might go wrong," he says.
"But children do need contact. They need love and care. And
I would hope that with all the other safeguards in place these days
to protect children that there really is no need for all of this."
published in the Edinburgh Evening News, 18 January 2005