Kids may find it harder to grow up if adults over-regulate their lives.
Tim Gill| Jan/Feb 2008 issue
There’s a widespread belief that children grow up faster today. In fact, though they may adopt adult cultures and attitudes, their daily lives are far more controlled and overseen than a couple of decades ago. Consider these UK statistics: In 1971, the average 7-year-old went to school on his own; by 1990, children had to wait until they were 10 before being given this “right.” The trend appears to be continuing. In a survey in 2007, nearly half of adults said children should not be allowed to go out with their friends unsupervised until the children were 14 years old.
Why have the horizons of childhood shrunk so much? While parents set the limits, their actions are just the beginning of the story. Many social and cultural trends—traffic growth, longer working hours, more fragmented communities, greater fear of crime and a pervasive climate of anxiety—all reinforce the logic of containment.
Perhaps parents’ greatest worry is the fear of child abduction or murder. These are among the rarest of crimes. In the UK, where I live, some five to seven children are killed by strangers every year. Of these, around two are in primary school. That is absolutely terrible for them and their families. Yet the figures are no higher than they were when I was a child 35 years ago. However, many believe the threat is serious and growing, a predictable result of emotive media coverage.
Whatever the reasons, we now have a norm of parenting that equates being a good parent with being a controlling parent. We do not just ferry children everywhere, we also supervise nearly every move they make.
The over-regulation of children’s lives has a big downside. Many experiences children used to enjoy—boisterous physical play, street play, verbal jousting, even climbing trees—are now seen as deeply troubling. The parents who allow those activities are labelled irresponsible. But children need everyday challenges and adventures if they are to learn how to manage their own safety and sort out their problems for themselves. Today, many pre-adolescent children don’t get those opportunities. How will they develop the skills they need to deal with the wider world?
I don’t think parents are solely to blame. Most are well aware they should be preparing their offspring for life as autonomous adults. I speak as a parent myself. We do not need more experts telling us what to do. One thing I have found helpful is simply to share views with other parents, looking back on our own childhoods to remind ourselves of the value of tasting freedom. While we cannot recreate our childhoods, we can reject the culture of overprotection and come up with practical steps to give our children more responsibility. This could be walking to school once a week with an older child on the street, or trying to sort out minor spats for themselves or simply climbing trees in the park.
This is not a job parents can do by themselves. Parents, teachers, child-carers and providers of organized activities all need to accept that children do not need adults watching their every move. As a society, we need to move from a philosophy of protection to a philosophy of resilience. The role of adults in childhood is not just to protect, but to help children build their coping mechanisms and take on more responsibility for their everyday lives.
This will not be easy. I believe government leadership is needed to reverse this trend. Alongside new policies in schools and services, politicians should be making the creation of more child-friendly communities a high priority. By these I mean neighbourhoods that are safe, supportive, welcoming and tolerant as children gradually extend their lives beyond home and school.
Ultimately, this is a question of balance. Of course we need to protect children from serious threats, but we also need to give them the freedom to learn how to get to grips with the world for themselves.
Tim Gill is the author of No Fear: Growing Up in a Risk Averse Society, which can be downloaded free from gulbenkian.org.uk. His website is rethinkingchildhood.com