• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

Breaking up is hard to do ... but children must learn to cope

As a result of a regime of permanent panic about the perils of childhood, youngsters have lost the freedom of independent mobility, opportunities to engage with their peers and even to choose their own best friend.

Back in 1970, a study by the Australian Bureau of Statistics indicated that 84 per cent of children in primary, secondary and tertiary education walked, cycled or travelled by public transport to school. Forty years ago only 16 per cent went by car. Today the pattern of travel has almost totally reversed. A Heart Foundation study shows that 63 per cent of children are chauffeured to and from school. The sight of children cycling to school has become increasingly rare. They have been deprived of the opportunity to gain maturity and independence from making their own way to school.

Children’s loss of freedom of the outdoors is only one casualty of the colonisation of their lives. But such visible symptoms of a regime of paranoid child protection represent only the tip of the iceberg. During the past two decades, virtually every dimension of children’s experience has been redefined as potentially so risky that adult intervention is mandatory.

At first the focus of concern was the outdoors. Traffic and stranger-danger were cited as the reason why children’s lives outdoors had to be monitored and constantly supervised. Then, as more and more children were confined to their digital bedrooms, the focus of anxiety shifted to the dangers of indoor life.

Suddenly children had to be protected from internet bullies and predators. Moreover, the new sedentary lifestyle imposed upon youngsters invited a preoccupation with childhood obesity and related health issues.

However, the most invasive and potentially damaging form of obsessive adult intervention is in the domain of children’s emotional lives. Among professionals there is an implicit consensus that children are so incapable of dealing with disappointment and routine emotional distress that they need constant therapeutic guidance. This dogma has become so powerful that some child professionals actually argue that youngsters should not be free to choose their own best friends or be left to manage their own relationships.

A couple of weeks ago there was an outburst of surprise in England when it was revealed that numerous primary schools in southwest London had adopted a “no best friend policy”. Teachers involved in this uber-zealous scheme argued that this policy saved children from the pain that comes from splitting up with their best friend. Some actually believe that they have the right to break up a close friendship and to instruct children to join a larger, “less inclusive” friendship circle.

The practice of policing children’s choice of close buddies has being going on for some time. As is the case with most forms of paranoid child-related policies, the targeting of the bonds of friendship was invented in the US. For some time now, American experts have argued that youngsters should be discouraged from forming the classic best-friend bond.

Two years ago The New York Times reported that in numerous schools, teachers admitted that they “watch close friendships carefully for adverse effects”. One school counsellor from St Louis stated: “We try to talk to kids and work with them to get them to have big groups of friends and not be so possessive about friends.”

The idea that adults choosing friends for children is preferable to allowing youngsters to develop their own social bonds is frequently voiced by so-called experts.

This extension of adult involvement in children’s lives is based on the claim that youngsters are so emotionally vulnerable to each other’s pressure that they cannot be trusted to socialise on their own. In recent years the interaction between children has been rebranded as the toxic phenomenon of “peer pressure”. In turn, peer pressure has become stigmatised as a threat to children’s wellbeing. Thus, the impression that children do best when they have no mates is often conveyed.

Some Australian professionals are also in the business of involving themselves in children’s social lives. The website of Health Direct Australia offers a warning about friendships on the grounds that they can play a “major role in making your life a misery, thereby affecting your mental health in a negative way”.

It also offers several help lines that can be contacted in case you want to talk to a professional about how to make friends.

Making and losing friends is one of the most important experiences through which children learn about interacting with other people. Through the bonds they develop with each other, children develop social skills and learn to understand their own needs.

Of course, precisely because so much is at stake, friends can cause pain and emotional distress. But learning to live with rejection and disappointment is an inescapable dimension of a child’s development. Some youngsters deal with emotional distress better than others. Parents and sympathetic adults can reassure them, but in the end children need to learn to deal with adversity.

The tragedy is that the policing of the emotional lives of children to protect them from their friends actually diminishes young people’s capacity to develop resilience and maturity from their experience. Just as it is not the discovery of new threats to children that led to the closing down of the outdoors, so too it is not a sudden eruption of dysfunctional friendships that has encouraged the expansion of adult intervention in their social lives.

What drives the colonisation of childhood is the recycling of adults’ unresolved issues through the lives of young people.

The truth is that peer pressure is no bad thing.

Without the pressure that children direct towards each other, young people would rarely test boundaries, learn to take risks and gain a measure of self-sufficiency.

These are values that are foundational for a tolerant and open society.

If we are to prepare children for freedom, then we could do worse than allow them to choose their friends.

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