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

The real danger to our children

The experience of the past three decades indicates that an understandable concern with the safety and wellbeing of children can swiftly mutate into a zealous crusade that often incites parents into a state of panic. That is why the announcement by Queensland Premier Anna Bligh that the Daniel Morcombe Child Safety Program will become part of the school curriculum for Prep to Year 9 students fills me with dread.

The Daniel Morcombe Foundation will receive official support for its campaign to promote awareness about child protection in schools. Bruce and Denise Morcombe, whose 13-year-old son was allegedly abducted and killed eight years ago, were appointed as child safety ambassadors by Bligh, who stated that she hoped the child safety curriculum would be adopted nationally. At first sight there appears to be little that is objectionable about the initiative. To his credit Morcombe has stated that his program does not aim to scare children but to give them “lifesaving skills”. Apparently aware that a lot of previous stranger danger initiatives have led to a dramatic erosion of adult-child encounters, Morcombe indicated that “we’re not saying everyone is bad; we’re saying you need to trust some people”.

Unfortunately in today’s climate, where intergenerational relations are fraught with tension, the institutionalisation of this initiative in Queensland schools is likely to make a bad situation worse. Teaching children to trust “some people” conveys the idea that it makes sense to mistrust every other adult. Take the example of one of the first stranger danger campaigns launched in 1988 in Leeds by the British Home Office. The campaign created a profound sense of anxiety and as far as the children were concerned the message was that they should mistrust people they did not already know.

Other campaigns organised by the Home Office offered a list of “grown-ups you can trust”—police officer, security guard, shop assistant, mum with a pram. But apparently everyone else signifies danger. It is likely that children in Queensland who will be instructed that it is OK to trust some people will draw the conclusion that other adults are potential threats to their wellbeing.

What children are likely to learn from such instructions are not so much precious life skills but the habit of suspicion towards the adult world. In circumstances where so many adults are perceived as potential predators, children are actually disempowered from developing the kind of intuition that helps them to distinguish between friend and foe or how to anticipate trouble. The division of a world into people who can and cannot be trusted provides little guidance for the negotiation of the ambiguities of routine personal encounters.

The questions that Australian policymakers and educators should be asking themselves is do we need to introduce even more suspicion towards intergenerational interaction in schools? Parents already carefully scrutinise the behaviour of adults who talk to their children. Time and again, mothers and fathers will tell you that “the world has changed” and “you just don’t know who is out there”. Australia already possesses a flourishing child protection industry and anxieties about the prevalence of pedophilia are widespread. So if there is a problem, it is not that Australians are not suspicious enough but that when it comes to adult-child relations they are often prone to suspecting the worst.

That’s why it is difficult to understand Bruce Morcombe’s statement when he stated that “Daniel’s abduction is a defining moment in terms of Queensland parents collectively recognising that child safety is important”.

Queensland parents may have many failings but a failure to recognise the importance of child safety is not one of them. And the last thing Australian children need is yet another safety campaign that will have the unintended consequence of discouraging them from engaging with an uncertain world.

The most regrettable outcome of child protection policies that target strangers is the diminishing of intergenerational encounters. It is no exaggeration to state that a growing number of adults feel awkward and confused when they are in close physical proximity to children that they do not know. Nor is this sense of unease confined to intergenerational interaction between strangers. Many teachers and nursery staff confide that they often feel self-conscious in their relationships with children in their care. They understand that frequently an unintended remark or a physical gesture can be easily misinterpreted by others and that they will be judged guilty until they can prove their innocence.

In the present climate adults often feel uneasy about acting on their healthy intuition and feel forced to weigh up whether, and how, to interact with a child they have encountered. Such calculated behaviour alters the quality of that interaction. It no longer represents an act that is founded on doing what a man or woman feels is right—it is an act that is influenced by calculations about how it will be interpreted by others and by anxieties that it should not be misconstrued.

Worse still is the fact that many adults have decided the best policy to adopt is to keep their distance from other people’s children. Such a course of action is motivated by the conviction that they should avoid putting themselves in situations where their actions can be misinterpreted. Arguably, the disengagement of many adults from the world of children represents a far greater danger than the threat posed by a—thankfully—tiny group of predators. The best guarantee of children’s safety is the exercise of adult responsibility towards the younger generation. It is when adults take it on themselves to keep an eye on children—and not just simply their own—that youngsters can learn to feel genuinely safe.

Instead of fostering suspicion towards grown-ups, society should encourage and cultivate a sense of trust in the good intentions of the older generations. Instead of disrupting inter-generational trust, schools should be cultivating it.

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