Making sense of parental paranoia
An extract from Paranoid Parenting
Tony is giving up teaching. Although he would not use the words, it was ‘parental paranoia’ that drove him out of the West Sussex primary school where he had taught for three years. During his teacher training, Tony had anticipated that he might be stretched by the challenge of dealing with rowdy children. But he was not prepared for the task of coping with ‘difficult’ anxious parents. The most taxing moments of his working life were to be spent dealing with ‘worried mums’. He sighs as he tells of the mother who insisted on driving behind her son’s coach to France to ensure that he arrived safely. He wearily recalls how a school trip to the seaside, planned for a class of 5-year-olds was cancelled because two parents were concerned that the trip would involve their children in a 45-minute journey in a private car. Would the cars be roadworthy? Who would accompany a child to the lavatory? Who would ensure correct fitting seat belts? Were these normally non-smoking cars, or would the children be made victims of passive smoking? The planned pirate’s day on the beach ended up being confined to the school field - sea, sand and adventure confined to their imagination and many of its education aims undermined. Exasperated by ‘problems - all in the minds of parents’, Tony sought, and found, a career outside teaching.
Of course, it is normal for parents to be concerned about the well-being of their children. Parental anxiety is nothing new. A brief inspection of the pages of The Nursery World from the 1920’s and 1930’s shows that our grandparents were haunted by many of the doubts, worries and preoccupations that torment fathers and mothers today. A frequently revised topic was: ‘Is my child’s development normal? Child tantrums, shyness, aggression, jealousy, thumb-sucking, nail-biting, refusal to sleep, were regularly raised in letters from concerned parents. Many begged an answer to what the publication’s agony aunt called ‘a problem as old as parenthood itself - that of how to get to obey us’.
It might seem that not much has changed. But the superficial similarities betray some big differences, in the past, parental anxiety focused on the problems within the family. Infant health - physical, psychological and moral - was an important preoccupation as was preparing children for the outside world - school, career, marriage. And of course, the older generation was often anxious about their children falling in with bad company and generally ‘getting up to no good’. But the concerns raised by our grandparents were voiced in a different tone from today.
Reading the worries of parents published in the 1920s, the overall impression is something like this: ‘Family life is fine, but there is just this one little thing that we need to sort out.’ Today the discussions in parenting magazines suggests that family life is far from fine, that most parents feel out of control and that everything is up for question. Instead of a specific concern, parents seem to be suffering a more general loss of confidence.
The parents who write in magazines today do not give the impression that they are troubled by one aspect of child-rearing. Many seem overwhelmed by the sheer scale of troublesome issues confronting them. These days it seems that every little issue - how to toilet-train a child, when you can leave them home alone, whether to force them to eat their greens - is made into a bigger problem by an overall crisis of parental nerve. This suggests that there must have been some major changes in the way that adults negotiate the task of looking after youngsters. The clearest symptom of this trend is the public panic about child safety.
In recent years, no issue has come under close scrutiny than the question of children’s safety. It has become so highly charged that a single incident can spark a major public debate and demands for new regulations. For example, the tragic murder of an English teenage girl while visiting France on an organized school exchange led to a major review of the safety of school trips - despite the fact that the incident was clearly a one-off event. There is no evidence of any increase in attacks on foreign (or French) students in France, and it is unlikely that such an attack will take place again regardless of whether the authorities take new precautionary measures or not. Such measures may make parents feel better, but a murderer intent on getting into a dormitory will probably do so as easily in France as he would in England. Thankfully, such outrages happen rarely - not because of security measures recommended by educational establishments, but because only a tiny number of people are motivated to commit such atrocities. In truth, a 15-year-old girl is probably far safer in a dormitory in St Gerbais than in her 18-year-old boyfriend’s Ford Fiesta on the M25.
Public concern with safety has reached obsessive proportions. The remote possibility that children might choke on small toys in packets of cereals, chocolates and crisps has provoked demands to ban them. There is no evidence that any child has ever choked to death - but the theoretical possibility that one just might do so one day in undeniable, and that is sufficient to justify the call for a ban. Baby walkers, which have been used for years to allow infants to whiz about before they can walk alone, have been condemned because of the possibility that children may topple over or fall down the stairs. Admittedly this danger is more ‘real’ than that of death by Pokemon-card ingestion, but it is still triggered by the potential risk that something might happen, and not by specific evidence that it has.
Once in place, parental paranoia easily attaches itself to any new experience concerning children. Take in vitro fertilization (IVF) - for many the only root to parenthood. Rather than celebrating the potential of IVF to cerate wanted children, researches have recently warned about hypothetical dangers to the children being given life. There have been warnings that IVF could induce changes in children’s genetic make-up and impair their mental development. There has been speculation about whether sperm that have to be assisted to fertilize an egg will produce babies as healthy as sperm that can swim on their own. Psychologists muse about whether people who become parents by artificial means after years of infertility will be able to relate, in an emotionally stable manner, to their much-wanted children. It has even been suggested that IVF children will be loved too much and may not be able to live up to their parents’ hopes for them. It is only a matter of time before the fertile imagination succeeds in turning IVF into a child safety issue.
The internet has a remarkable potential to enhance young people’s lives by providing educational opportunities. Yet it is widely seen as another new technology that poses new dangers to children. Much of the discussion about the World Wide Web has focused on how to protect young people from the perils, to prevent innocents stumbling across ‘adult’ sites or into the clutches of paedophiles. ‘The Internet can be a big and dangerous place for children, but for the price of a phone call, it needn’t be’, promises a newspaper advertisement for an Internet provider specializing in protecting children in cyberspace. Such manipulative marketing schemes are confident that they can convert parental paranoia into hard cash.
Sadly, virtual reality provides infinite space for the exercise of the anxious imagination, an unknown world where our fear of invisible strangers can run riot. Since children are often more adept at negotiating the net, parental control is forced to confront uncomfortable new challenges. ‘You don’t know what’s out there’, a group of fathers confided in me. One raised the spectre of paedophile rings lurking in the shadows online, ready to pounce on his unsuspecting teenagers by e-mail. Nobody I talked to had actually heard of any child being damaged, but nevertheless they regarded the Internet as a really big problem. As one parents’ guide to the Internet warns: ‘You might think you have taken adequate steps to protect your child, but please be aware that a determined child might nonetheless be able to circumvent any protective software or security measure. And apparently there are other risks to worry about. A London conference on parenting in April 2000 was informed by Dr Jane Healy, and American educational psychologist, that computers can also damage children’s brain development.
Old-fashioned television is often indicted for its negative impact on children. Parents complain that television is teaching their children to be violent shopaholics. They protest that video games distract children form reading or riding a bike. Even parents who rely on the VCR to keep their children busy feel guilty about their pragmatic embrace of the electronic baby-sitter. The experts encourage these concerns. One American study warns that the impact of the media on children ‘should be eliciting serious concern, not just from parents and educators but from physicians, public health advocates, and politicians as well’. Parents are encouraged to blame television because, in a world where they already feel pretty powerless, yet another outside influence on their children is experienced as a threat to their authority.
Parents mistrust the Internet and television because of a more general unease about having to cope with external influences that bear upon their children. Many of these influences - television advertising, consumerism, the Internet - are portrayed as part of a complex new world that is causing parental insecurity. But adult over-reaction to new technology is a symptom, and not the cause of the problem. Many parents now feel so insecure and fearful of what they do not understand that virtually anything can be turned into a potential childcare crisis.
Fear of children’s safety has come to dominate the parenting landscape. In 1998 the advocacy group Families for Freedom interviewed 200 parents. The results make frightening reading. Most of these parents paint a picture of a world that is hostile territory for their children. They routinely use words like ‘scared’ and ‘frightened’ to describe their feelings about their children, particularly where they are outdoors. When the marketing organization System Three surveyed public opinion on the safety of children in Scotland for the BBC in 1998, the results suggested an overwhelming sense that children were far less safe than 20 years ago. Although the incidence of child murder by a stranger in Scotland is very low and has shown no change in the past 20 years, 76 per cent of respondents thought that there had been an increase in such tragedies, while 38 per cent believed that the increase had been ‘dramatic’. A large majority - 83 per cent - also thought that more children were now being knocked down by traffic on the roads of Scotland. In fact the incidence of road injuries to children had decreased by 60 per cent during the previous 20 years. The gap between adult perceptions and the reality of the risks faced by children is confirmed by other studies in the Anglo-American world. A survey of US paediatricians carried out in 1995 claimed that parental anxieties tended to be significantly out of proportion to many real risks. The discrepancy between actual and imagined risks was particularly striking in relation to the dramatic issues of child welfare, such as abduction, environmental poisons and cancer.
A culture of fear has led parents to restrict their children’s independent outdoor activities. In 1971, eight out of ten 8-year-olds were allowed to walk to school alone. Now it is fewer than one in ten. At age II almost every child used to walk, now it is down to 55 per cent and falling. A report published by the Children’s Play Council in 1997 argued that children had become virtual prisoners in their own homes.
Paranoid parenting does not only restrict children’s freedom to play. It also diminishes the creative aspect of play. There is considerable evidence that children are more creative when their parents are not around to monitor their behaviour. A study by Dale Grubb and Alicia Snyder concludes that adult supervision turns play into a structured activity and that this weakens youngsters’ drive to experiment. Unfortunately, the concept of unsupervised children’s activity - what used to be called play - is now defined by child professionals as a risk. Restricting children’s outdoor activity has predictable consequences for their development, and a sedentary lifestyle is inevitably bad for their health. Research has linked the decline in British children’s fitness to the decrease in the amount of time they spend walking and cycling. The First National Travel Survey reported a fall of about 20 per cent in the annual distance walked and 27 per cent in the distance cycled by children between 1985 and 1993. An average British schoolgirl now walks for less than seven minutes a day. Deprived of the opportunity to burn calories by racing around outside, children grow fat. A study published in the British Medical Journal in September found an alarming proportion of pre-school children to be overweight and even obese. Among those aged 2, 15.8 per cent were considered overweight and 6 per cent obese. By the time they reached 5, 18.7 were deemed overweight and 7.2 per cent obese.
The precautionary approach to parenting
Parental paranoia today is more than simply a worse version of past anxieties. For instance, a common target of child-rearing manuals before the Second World War was the over-protective parent, and guilt-ridden parents worried that they might be ‘smothering’ their children. But how many times do we hear parents criticized for being over-protective today? Indeed, many of the traits associated with the classic over-protective father or mother are likely to be praised by today’s child experts as responsible parenting. Parents are continually urged to do even more to protect their children.
Researchers advise parents to supervise children, not only outdoors, but even when they watch television. The term ‘coviewing’ has been coined to describe the practice of hands-on parents playing the role of a ‘media value filter and a media educator’. Other researchers further, claim that parental supervision inoculates children from many of the dangers they face. They contend that ‘parental monitoring has been inversely associated with antisocial behaviour, drug use, tobacco use and early sexual activity’. There is obviously some truth in this. The more time a child spends in the company of his or her parents the less time is available for smoking, drinking and sex. But to equate the amount of parental supervision directly with behavioural outcomes tells parents that the more time they manage to spend with their children, the better their offspring will be. This raises the question of where to draw the line. How do parents decide how much monitoring is reasonably required, as opposed to optimally possible?
Unfortunately, parental supervision is today always interpreted as a positive virtue so parents can never spend too much time supervising their youngsters. Child-rearing experts occasionally concede that it is simply impossible to keep children and young teenagers under constant adult supervision. But even then they insist that alternative, indirect, forms of child surveillance are employed. One American expert argues that if a child has to be left under self-care, then parents must do whatever they can to supervise in absentia, by liaising with a trusted adult who knows what the youngster is up to. The message is clear: if you are going to shirk your responsibility towards your child even for a few hours, you must at least make sure that somebody else is doing your job for you.
Parents are not just advised to supervise their children. In Britain, such advice contains the implicit threat of legal sanction. Although in England and Wales there is no statutory age at which it is illegal to leave your children unattended, a parent who is deemed to neglect, abandon or expose her children to danger can be liable to prosecution. According to Carolyn Hamilton of the Children’s Legal Centre, the general view taken by child protection professionals is that a parent should not leave children under 12 alone for more than 20-30 minutes. What a shock this would have been to the parents of ‘latch-key’ youngsters in the 1970s. At that time debate about the children of working mothers returning from school to empty homes focused on whether it was right for women to have jobs which deprived their children of a welcoming smile and the smell of home baking. The issue was not seen as one of child safety and certainly not abandonment. Yet today’s legal experts advise that, while parents are unlikely to face prosecution for a 30-minute absence, the parent of an 11-year-old left alone for three to four hours might face legal action. Even though very few parents are prosecuted in these circumstances, the strict guidelines convey a clear message about what society expects of parents. And that expectation is founded on the premise that parents can never do too much to protect their children.
Twenty or thirty years ago, authors of child-rearing manuals had their own way of making parents feel guilty. But they would have reacted with disbelief to the proposition that it was wrong to leave children under 12 alone for more than 20-30 minutes. Fortunately, there are still some societies where the over-protective parent is not promoted as role model. Children in Norway and Finland ‘enjoy being at home without their parents from about seven onwards’ records Priscilla Alderson, a Reader in Childhood Studies at the Institute of Education in London. According to Alderson, Finnish children start school at 7 years, and sometimes go home at 11 a.m. where they play with friends until their parents arrive home in the late afternoon. In Anglo-American societies, where a paranoid parenting style prevails, such practices would be condemned as child abuse.
The view that children cannot survive without the constant presence of a responsible adult is continually reinforced by public campaigns designed to frighten parents. ‘Only use baby-sitters who are over 16 and responsible enough to look after your children’ warned the NSPCC during its August Safe Open Spaces campaign. Even the time-honoured practice of using 14- or 15-year-olds eager to earn some pocket money through helping parents and dads look after their children is now dismissed as an act of gross irresponsibility.
Today’s parenting style sees safety and caution as intrinsic virtues.Paranoid parenting involves more than exaggerating the dangers facing children. It is driven by the constant expectation that something really bad is likely to happen to your youngster.
Jacqueline Lang, Headmistress of Walthamstow Hall School in Sevenoaks, Kent, has characterized today’s parenting style as ‘the worst-case scenario approach’. Lang caught the public imagination in 1997 when she remarked to the local media that ‘some girls in her school did not own a raincoat because they were ferried everywhere by car’. She identified one of the fundamental principles of paranoid parenting: the fear of taking risks. Her students’ parents were simply too scared to allow their girls to walk to school. Children who are strangers to the outdoors do not need raincoats.
Apprehension about child safety, and a morbid expectation that something terrible can happen any moment, mean that many risks that are well worth taking because of their stimulating effect on a child’s development are simply avoided. Child-rearing today is not so much about managing the risks of everyday life, but avoiding them altogether. As child psychologist Jennie Linden argues, the adult ‘preoccupation with risk can create too much emphasis on removing every conceivable source of even minor risk’. The characteristic feature of such an obsession is, according to Linden, ‘to speculate excessively on what can go wrong rather than on what children may learn.’ It is this precautionary approach which defines the parenting culture of contemporary society.
Parents have always been concerned about protecting their children form harm. Asking ‘What can go wrong?’ is a sensible way of dealing with the many new experiences children encounter. To weigh up probabilities before doing something is an informed way of managing risk. But asking what can go wrong is very different from acting on the assumption that things will go wrong. Such a fatalistic outlook reduces the power of parents to make informed, intelligent judgements. A more appropriate approach might be to follow an assessment of what can go wrong with two other questions - ‘Does it matter?’ and ‘What might the child learn from the experience?’ The precautionary approach continually encourages adults to adopt the same one-dimensional response: Beware!
It is tempting to interpret the precautionary approach to child- rearing as the irrational reaction of individual mothers and fathers. Child professionals sometimes point the finger at over-anxious parents and advise them to be more sensible about managing the risks their children face. Jacqueline Lang, who is exceptionally sensitive to the consequences of trying to ‘inoculate’ children against the risks thrown up by life, blames ‘a generation of timid parents’ for ‘stifling the sense of adventure’ of Britain’s children. However, it is a mistake to reduce the problem to the personalities of some parents. How individual adults relate to their infants at any time is inseparable from the parenting style encouraged by our culture and society.
Parents today face strong social pressures to adopt a precautionary approach towards child-rearing. Intimidating public campaigns endlessly remind them about the many risks their children face. It is difficult to retain a sense of perspective when the safety of children has become a permanent item of news.
The erosion of adult solidarity
Christina Hardyment, in her excellent study on baby-care advice past and present, is struck by the intensity of parental paranoia today. She senses a climate of permanent panic that invites a guilt-ridden style of parenting. The loss of small children’s freedom is one consequence.’ Children’s freedom has never been restricted as it is today. A study by Dr Mayer Hillman of the Policy Studies Institute indicates that while 80 per cent of 7- and 8-year-olds went to school by themselves in 1970, fewer than 10 per cent are now allowed to do so. In the past, not even the archetypal over-anxious parent would have taken the precautionary approach that is now seen as the norm. Even though children have never been safer or healthier, at no time has so much concern and energy been devoted to protecting youngsters from harm.
A Glasgow researcher, Stuart Waiton, has produced compelling evidence that counters the fear that children are at greater risk than in previous times. According to Waiton, between 1988 and 1999 the number of children murdered between the ages of and 16 decreased in England and Wales from 4 per million to 3 per million. The total murdered under the age of 5 dropped from 12 per million to 9 per million. Cases of abduction in which the offender was found guilty dropped from 26 to 8 over the same period.
Although surveys confirm that paranoid parenting is widespread, there has been little attempt to understand its causes. The most common explanation is that it is all the fault of the sensationalist media. Panics about children’s safety are interpreted as ‘media-led’ and television is accused of making parents unnecessarily apprehensive. ‘Increasingly, we are bombarded by the news media with spectacular accounts of violence, illness and health concerns, as well as varied opinions about appropriate diets and child rearing practices’, concluded the authors of one study of parental worries in the United States. They certainly have a point. Research into the British media’s reporting of the horrific murder of 2-year-old Jamie Bulger by two 10-year-old boys shows that it had a major impact on parents. In a survey of 1,000 parents taken a year later, 97 percent cited the possible abduction of their children as their greatest fear. The Times reported that many of these parents revealed that ‘video images of the two-year-old being taken by his killers were still fresh in their minds’.
So yes, the media helps shape adults’ perception of the risks faced by children. But it is far too simplistic to blame the media for the problems of parenting. Parents do not need high-profile media horror stories to provoke their insecurities. They worry about all manner of everyday things, all of the time. They can be anxious about Mary’s weight on Monday, Tim’s refusal to eat vegetables on Tuesday, the poor state of Mary’s and Tim’s education on Wednesday, and so on. A heightened sense of insecurity can attach itself to relatively mundane experiences such as whether a child is too fat or too thin. The media does not cause paranoid parenting. Its main role is to amplify society’s concerns, to give shape to our fears. Confusing the messenger with the bad news is an understandable reaction, but not one that will help illuminate the issues at stake.
So what is the bad news? In the chapters that follow, it should become clear that a variety of influences help to shape contemporary anxieties about parenting. But if one thing above all others has created the conditions for today’s parenting crisis, it is the breakdown of adult solidarity.
Adult solidarity is one of those used to take for granted. Most of the time, in most places, adult solidarity is practised by people who have never heard of the term. In most communities throughout the world adults assume a modicum of public responsibility for the welfare of children even if they have no ties to them. When the local newsagent or butcher scolds a child for dropping a chewing-gum wrapper on the road, they are actively assisting that boy’s parents in the process of socialization. When a pensioner reprimands a young girl for crossing the road when the light is red, he is backing up her parents’ attempt to teach, her the ways of the world. These displays of public responsibility teach children that certain behaviour is expected by the entire community, and not just by their mum and dad.
It has long been recognized that the socialization of children relies on a wide network of responsible adults. Parents cannot be expected to act as 24-hour-a-day chaperones. Across cultures and throughout history, mothers and fathers have acted on the assumption that if their children got into trouble, other adults - often strangers - would help out. In many societies adults feel duty-bound to reprimand other people’s children who misbehave in public.
As every parent knows, in Britain today, fathers and mothers cannot rely on other adults to take responsibility for looking after their children. British adults are hesitant to engage with other people’s youngsters. This reluctance to assume responsibility for the welfare of the young is not simply a matter of selfishness or indifference. Many adults fear that their action would be misunderstood and resented, perhaps even misinterpreted as abuse. Adults feel uncomfortable in the presence of children. They don’t want to get involved and, even when confronted by a child in distress, are uncertain about how to behave.
Take the following scene in a primary school in Bristol during the spring of 2000. The teachers have organized a group of 7-year-olds to go outside the schoolyard to count the cars that pass by. Little Henry is bored and proceeds to poke his head through the railings that separate the schoolyard from the street. He gets his head stuck. The teachers are at a loss to know what to do. A crowd gathers around the trapped child. One teacher finds a jar of cream and applies some of it on the railing to help Henry wriggle out of his predicament. It doesn’t work. Parents begin to arrive to pick up the children. The teachers are standing around. Not one of them has attempted to pull Henry out. Not one of them has put an arm around the distressed boy in an act of reassurance. They are afraid of touching the child. Finally, Henry’s mum arrives. She takes one look at her son, grabs hold of him, gives him a yank and he is out. Henry’s 80-minute ordeal is over.
The story was recounted to me in horror by a young teacher, as a statement about the world we live in. When I asked why she hadn’t done something to help little Henry, she said that she had already been reprimanded a year earlier for being ‘too physical’ with one of her pupils.
When we live in a society that warns off teachers, traditionally seen as being in loco parentis, it is hardly surprising that strangers hesitate before becoming involved with other people’s children. If a teacher is not allowed to cuddle a crying child for fear of the action being misinterpreted, no wonder that passers-by will turn their backs on a weeping infant.
Awkward adults uncomfortable in the company of children represent a serious problem for parents. Mothers and fathers feel that they are on their own. Worse, many parents are convinced that it is best if other adults don’t interfere in their children’s affairs. Parents regard other people not as allies, but as potentially predatory on their young ones. Clumsy adults inept at relating to children and anxious parents concerned about ‘stranger-danger’ are two sides of the same coin.
This breakdown in adult solidarity breeds parental paranoia. The fear of the ‘other person’ is the most tangible expression of parental insecurity. A 1998 survey carried out by Families for Freedom noted that 89.5 per cent of the respondents had a general sense of foreboding about the safety of their children. This general sense of alarm became more focused when other adults were brought into the equation. It was said by 76 per cent that they were ‘very worried’ about their children’s safety in relation to ‘other people’. The other person is the stranger. Research carried out by Mary Joshi and Morag Maclean in 1995 found that more parents gave ‘stranger-danger’ as a reason for using cars for school journeys than any other reason.
Perhaps that is why parents in Britain are more likely to drive their children to school than in Germany, Scandinavia and other parts of Europe where the distance between home and school may be far greater. In societies where neighbours and other adults assume a degree of responsibility for keeping an eye on children, attitudes towards their safety are far less obsessive. A comparative study of children’s independent mobility concluded that there is far less parental supervision in Germany than the UK. According to the authors, one reason why German parents are more likely to allow children out on their own is because they expect other adults to keep an eye on them; in turn, German children reported feeling that they were watched over by the adult world. This culture of collaboration creates a sense of security for German parents. The expectation that other adults will do the right thing helps them to take a more relaxed attitude towards letting their children out of the door than might be the case in Britain. One consequence of the erosion of adult solidarity in Britain is that the distance that children are allowed to stray from home has been reduced to one-ninth of what it was in 1970.
A poisonous atmosphere for parenting
The finger points not only at other adults; British parents themselves have also come under suspicion. The public is frequently warned that children are at risk from their own parents. Parents who find it difficult to deal with the pressures of everyday life have been portrayed as potential abusers. In May 2000, the NSPCC launched its Full Stop campaign. Shocking pictures on billboards show a loving mother playing with her baby. The caption reads: ‘Later she wanted to hold a pillow over his face.’ Another picture highlights a loving father cuddling his baby. The words ‘that night he felt like slamming her against the cot’ serve as a chilling reminder not to be deceived by appearances. The NSPCC justified its scaremongering tactics on the grounds that it was telling parents that it is normal to snap under pressure, and that they need to learn to handle the strain. But this alleged link between parental incompetence and abusive behaviour has disturbing implications for every father and mother. If anyone can snap and smash the head of their baby against the wall, whom can you trust?
It is easy for a mother or a father to lose control and lash out at their youngster. Regrettably most of us have done it on more than one occasion. Snapping under pressure is a normal is unfortunate fact of life. But when we snap we don’t go on to smash our baby’s head against the wall. It may be normal for parents to snap, but it is wrong for the NSPCC to suggest that this temporary loss of control ‘normally’ leads to abuse. The implication that parenting under pressure is an invitation to abuse is an insult to the integrity of millions of hardworking mothers and fathers. It also helps to create a poisonous atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust.
A booklet Protecting our Children: A Guide for Parents, sponsored by Labour MP Dan Norris and with a foreword by Prime Minister Tony Blair, explains that anybody might be a paedophile. ‘They live in our communities, in our families and may even be someone we know and love’, the booklet informs the reader. ‘How can seemingly kind and even respectable people abuse children’ it asks?’ Anyone reading this book is invited to look at people ‘we know and love’ with a newly suspicious eye. If it is indeed the case that anyone and everyone in our communities and our families should be treated with caution, then trust and collaboration between adults become impossible.
Family life, once idealized as a haven from a heartless world, is now widely depicted as a site of domestic violence and abuse. Child protection professionals and press commentators are always warning of the dangers that children face from their ‘normal’ parents. If victimization within the family is pandemic then clearly we are obliged to mistrust even those closest to us. The focus of anxiety can no longer be the alien stranger or criminal, but our closest family relations, neighbours, friends, lovers and workmates. Such a suspicious attitude towards everyday life redefines how people are expected to relate to those closest to them. This culture of fear places parents in a difficult position. Every year some 120,000 parents experience the nightmare of being wrongly accused of child abuse.’ Since normal parents are now portrayed as potential abusers, it is not surprising that so many face investigation on the basis of hearsay and rumour.
Scare campaigns that target parents represent a body blow to the authority of every mother and father. Here and there, public figures still pay lip service to the ‘great job’ performed by parents. But the ceaseless reminders of parental failure take their toll. Campaigns which claim that it is normal for parents to snap and abuse permeate the public imagination, and incite us to be suspicious of our neighbours. When even nice mothers and fathers are potential monsters it is difficult to regard parents in a positive light. Everyone now feels entitled to speculate about what Mary’s dad is up to. Under this pressure, parents will openly criticize other mothers and fathers - sometimes in front of the children. A society that expects parents to teach children to avoid strangers and to regard them with dread is storing up big problems for the future. When parents instruct children about stranger-danger these days, they are also communicating a negative statement about the adult world - and, by implication, about themselves.
The code of mistrust
If family life is seen as essentially rotten to the core, which other institution could possibly be perceived as good? If parents, brothers and sisters cannot be entirely trusted, how can we have faith in the integrity of more distant acquaintances? This is the message conveyed on a daily basis through television and popular culture. Not a day goes by without another sordid tale of some professional abusing the trust that has been placed in him or her. The suspicion of abuse that hangs over the family has spread like a disease to infect other institutions from schools to Scout and Guide groups. Where once there would have been an assumption of goodwill, dangers are now seen to lurk.
An editorial in the British Journal of Sports Medicine claims that sport is ‘the last refuge of child abuse’. ‘I know it is going on from hundreds of interviews with athletes but it is difficult to get any statistical evidence’, writes Celia Brackenridge. Many sporting bodies have issued guidelines about how to spot potential abusers working in their midst. In December 1998 the Amateur Swimming Association, in conjunction with the NSPCC, set up a helpline for children on the grounds that their sport might be targeted by paedophiles like the Olympic swimming coach jailed for child sex abuse. In 1999, the England and Wales Cricket Board issued child protection guidelines. At least one commentator blamed the collapse of English cricket on paedophiles who made parents reluctant to allow unsupervised children to play the game.
Predatory paedophiles have also become an issue with the St John Ambulance service, after three of its officers were jailed for the long-term abuse of cadets in 1998. The British Scout Association has been implicated in sex scandals. After a Coventry Scoutmaster was jailed for indecency offences against two boys and a Hampshire Scoutmaster was sentenced to six years for sexually abusing eight boys, the Association adopted a policy to ‘safeguard the welfare of all members by protecting them from physical, sexual and emotional harm.
Even religious organizations have been implicated in this, climate of fear. In Australia, Roman Catholic bishops have sought to ban their priests from having any private contact with children. Guidelines drawn up with the approval of the Vatican mean that confessionals have to be fitted with glass viewing panels. Priests are also banned from seeing any child alone with the door closed. Closed doors and private interaction are no longer acceptable to a society fed on a constant diet of mistrust. It is as if by definition the closed door is an invitation to abuse.
Any one-to-one contact between adults and children has effectively been stigmatized. A guideline published by the Salvation Army advises its members to ensure that ‘an adult is not left alone with a child or a young person where there is little or no opportunity for the activity to be observed by others’. It adds that this ‘may mean groups working within the same large room or working in an adjoining room with the door left open’. Salvation Army members were far from happy with this rule since many of their activities involve musical practice. Since band members play different instruments at various levels of proficiency, a lot of the training took place one-to-one in separate rooms. Nevertheless, the new order dictates that doors should be left open - and, presumably, ears closed.
A guideline issued by the British Home Office to voluntary organizations recommends that activities ‘which involve a single child working with an adult’ should ‘take place in a room which can be observed easily by others in nearby areas, even if this is achieved simply by leaving doors open’. Scout Association guidelines warn scout leaders to avoid one-to-one situations and contact sports. Guidelines issued by the England and Wales Cricket Board tell coaches not to work with a child ‘completely unobserved’, and suggest that ‘parents should take on the responsibility for their children in the changing rooms ‘.
The return of the medieval chaperone in Britain provides eloquent testimony to the regulation of adult contact with children. In one case a rector at a village church was forced to disband a choir because of new guidelines on child protection. Up to 20 child choristers met weekly for rehearsals and sang every Sunday at St Michael’s Church in Northchapel, West Sussex. The Rev. Gerald Kirkham had to stop recruiting because, under the new code, at least two adult chaperones were needed at choir practice.
Mistrust of adults, especially of men, has had a destructive impact on working relations between adults and children. Many adults have become wary of volunteering for this sort of work. The British Scout Association faces a shortage of volunteer leaders. ‘If a man says he wants to work with young boys, people jump to one conclusion’, reported Jo Tupper, a spokeswoman for the Scout Association. A similar pattern is evident in primary education. Research carried out by Mary Thornton of Hertfordshire University suggests that men are turning away from primary school teaching because of fears that they will be labelled ‘perverts’. Thornton claimed that men on teacher training programmes ‘felt they had no idea how to deal with physical contact’. Some of the trainees asked, for example, whether they ‘should cuddle a distressed child’. When physical contact with children comes with a health warning, teachers face a continual dilemma over how to handle routine issues in the classroom. In August 1998, the Local Government Association even went so far as to advise teachers not to put sun cream on pupils because it could lead to accusations of child abuse. Lord Puttnam, the inaugural chairman of the General Teaching Council has warned that when teachers are regarded as potential rapists and paedophiles their authority is seriously undermined.
In November 1999, it was reported that ‘Teachers, fearful of accusations of any kind of inappropriate touching, are increasingly wary of direct contact with the children in their charge, even if tears are involved.’ One school in Glasgow has responded to this ‘affectionphobic culture’ by introducing special massage classes for children. The idea is that pupils will stay fully clothed and standing upright while they take turns to massage each other’s heads, backs and shoulders. While the teacher reads a story, they will also take turns to massage each other’s forearms with plain, unscented oil.’ A new ritual for an age that dreads physical contact between adult and child.
Fear of adults victimizing children is fuelled by a child protection industry obsessed with the issue of abuse. The NSPCC’s Safe Open Spaces for Children, launched in August 1999, advised parents never to make their children ‘kiss or hug an adult if they don’t want to’. The justification for this proposal was that it would make children confident about refusing the advances of a stranger. From time immemorial, parents have pleaded with their children to kiss or hug grandmothers and aunts. The call to ban this innocent practice is symptomatic of the intense professional mistrust of adult behaviour towards children.
All this hysteria about physical contact actually does little to protect children. By casting the net so wide and expecting child abuse to be a normal occurrence, there is a danger of trivializing this dreadful deed. A climate of suspicion will not deter the child abuser, but it will undermine the confidence of all parents. And at the end of the day, confident parents are best placed to educate their children to deal with risks and danger.
The flight from children
From voluntary organizations to primary education, well-meaning adults are being put off from playing a valuable role in instructing and inspiring young children. At a conference organized by Playlink and Portsmouth City Council in November 1999, the delegates were enthusiastic professionals committed to improving children’s lives through outdoor play. But several of the play workers felt that their role was diminished by bureaucratic rules designed to regulate their contact with children. One play worker complained that she often could not do ‘what’s right’ by the children, because if she did not follow the rules it would threaten her career prospects.
Those who work with children are automatically undermined by new conventions that control their behaviour. If it is assumed that professional carers need to be told how to relate to the children in their charge, why should parents - or children - trust them? But it is not only professional carers or volunteers who are affected by this climate of paranoia. Suspicion towards them reflects and reinforces a more general distrust of adults. It is assumed that none of us can be expected to respect the line between childhood and adulthood: that we need to be told what almost all of us know by instinct - children are vulnerable creatures who need protection. This means comforting a distraught child with a cuddle just as much as it means not abusing those young people who have put their trust in you.
The negative image of adulthood enshrined in the new conventions has far-reaching implications. The healthy development of any community depends on the quality of the bond that links different generations. When those bonds are subjected to such intense suspicion, the ensuing confusion can threaten the very future of a community. After all, relations of warmth and affection are inherent in family relationships, and even in relations between children and other caters. If an adult touching a child comes to be regarded with anxiety, how can these relations be sustained?
Is it any surprise that many adults are literally scared of badly behaved children. Take the following scene on the lawn of one of Britain’s leading universities. Over 200 law lecturers and students are waiting for an official photograph to be taken. A young girl cycles up to the group and plonks herself down in front of the group and refuses to move. She is asked politely to move, but still refuses to do so. Not a single adult in this large group dares to intervene, reprimand the young girl or physically move her on. Afterwards, the lecturers justify their paralysis on the grounds that they feared accusations of assault or abuse if they had attempted to move her out of the way. In this stand-off the young girl emerges as the winner. Twenty minutes later, bored with her easy victory over the disoriented adults, the girl leaves of her own accord.
It should really come as no surprise that some children have begun to play off this general distrust of adults to make life difficult for those they don’t like. Most children are enterprising creatures, for whom adult insecurities provide an opportunity to exercise their power. Every year hundreds of teachers face false allegations of abuse. A teacher wept openly at the April 2000 conference of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers as he recounted his three months of agony after being falsely accused of punching a 12-year-old pupil. Other teachers recounted cases of false accusation and demanded that school staff should not be treated as guilty until proven innocent. It is tempting to blame malicious children for making life hell for some of their teachers. But it is not really their fault. They are merely manipulating a dirty-minded world created by obsessive adults.
The distrust of adult motives has encouraged a flight from children: a distancing between the generations. In some cases it has led to an avoidance of physical contact, in others the reluctance to take responsibility. The flight from children expresses adult confusions about how to relate to younger generations. Elderly people in particular are often unclear about what is expected of them in dealing with children. An 82-year-old man with numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren provides a classic illustration of this dilemma:
I was in a shop and this woman came in who the wife knew, with her little granddaughter. I was eating a sweet, and this little girl looked up at me, so I said, ‘would you like a sweetie, duck?’ She got all scared and jumped back. And I said, ‘well that’s the best thing you want to do. Never take a sweetie off nobody’. She done right, but it made me feel cheap, like. It made me feel awful really, to think I was offering a little girl a sweet. And I love kiddies. In the paper you hear there’s horrible people about and it’s awful, but it made me feel right cheap.
This octogenarian has internalized the new mood of suspicion towards adult motives. His mental retreat from following his well-meaning instincts towards the young girl is part of a general pattern. Sadly, this flight from children means that adult collaboration in raising the young rests on a fragile foundation. Parents of course cannot flee from their children. They are left to deal with the damage caused by the erosion of adult solidarity. They are truly on their own. The decline of adult solidarity means that parents must pay the cost for society’s estrangement from its children.
Parents on their own
More than ever parents are on their own. According to Professor John Adams of University College, London, we live in an age of hypermobility, where the car has facilitated a new level of social dispersal. Adams believes that hypermobiliry has led to the increased anonymity of individual households, a decline of conviviality towards our neighbours, a less child-friendly environment and the emergence of parental anxieties towards children’s outdoor safety. His concerns are echoed by numerous studies that confirm a palpable sense of social isolation. A survey published by the Royal Mail in 1999 revealed that people now live further away from relatives - though the majority still live within an hour’s journey. A quarter of respondents aged under 35 rarely or never spoke to their neighbours. Nearly a third of these respondents said that they would only offer to help neighbours if it was absolutely necessary, and did not want to know them any better. This indifference towards the fate of neighbours underlines the absence of communal affinity. We often live in neighbourhoods without neighbours. The absence of an obvious network of support has important implications for the way that adults negotiate the task of child-rearing.
The theme of social isolation is a familiar one to most parents. Mothers and fathers complain about an uneasy sense that they are ‘on their own’. Many mothers, especially those who work, are preoccupied with what could go wrong with their childcare arrangements. When there are no relatives near, and you are not on first-name terms with your neighbours, who is to pick up your child when your meeting runs late? Who can stay home and nurse a child off school for two weeks with chickenpox? The absence of an obvious back-up, the tenuous quality of friendship networks and the difficulty of gaining access to quality childcare all helps to create the feeling that life is one long struggle, increasing tensions within the household.
The fragmentation of family relations and the diminished sense of community have inevitably helped to make parents feel insecure. Not knowing where to turn in case of trouble can produce an intense sense of vulnerability - especially among lone parents who feel that they are literally on their own. The isolation of parents is not simply physical. The erosion of adult solidarity transforms parenting into an intensely lonely affair. A climate of suspicion serves to distance mothers and fathers from the world of adults. In turn, this predicament invites parents to be anxious and over-react - not just to the danger they see posed by strangers, but to every problem to do with their youngsters’ development. As we shall see, paranoid parenting now embraces almost every aspect of child-rearing.
published by published in The Guardian, 25 April 2001