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Fixing Humpty Dumpty

Kim Thomas

Tim Gill is interested in what he calls “the shrinking horizons of childhood”. For 15 years, he has been looking at the question of how children’s freedom and independence are being slowly eroded, to the extent that for many children, the experience of being allowed to play in the open, unsupervised, is extremely rare. Instead of looking at the benefits of letting children decide what they want to do in their own space and time, he says, we increasingly look at children as “empty vessels or creatures to be managed”. Part of his mission is “to persuade decision-makers and the wider public that it is a good thing for kids to be out and about, that is a sign of a healthy and society that is at ease with itself, rather than being a source of anxiety.”

So when – and why – did this obsession with protecting children begin? Tim says it’s impossible to pinpoint an exact moment, but says that it has been a year-on-year process. He cites Mayer Hillman’s research, ‘One False Move’, in 1991, which showed that the proportion of 7 and 8 year-old children making their own way to school had reduced from 80% in 1971 to 9% in 1990. The most dramatic reductions in children’s freedom occurred during that period, he says.

The change has been brought about by “a big kind of swirling set of social, cultural, economic and physical factors”. Part of the cautiousness has arisen from the increase in the number of cars on the road, making streets more dangerous to play in, he argues. But there are other factors too, such as changes to family working patterns, which mean that there are fewer mothers at home to provide “a safe haven and a drink, who can let kids in and out”; the explosion in screen-based entertainment offers; the rise in central heating, which makes bedrooms much more attractive places to be than in the 1950s and 1960s; and an adult perception that the outside world is a dangerous place to be: “We don’t spend as much time walking and cycling and just pottering around in our streets. For many people the only time they’re in their street is when they walk from their front door to the car. Because of that, neighbourhoods feel less safe even if they aren’t particularly, and then fear of paedophilia can be amplified because there isn’t any reality check to compare with it. And the media has ratcheted up the emotional power of its reporting of extreme and rare cases, which hasn’t helped readers to take a proportionate view of the risk.”

This fearful approach has extended to schools, he argues, many of which are now built like fortresses, both to keep children in and adults out. “It seems to me inevitable that if schools look like prisons, then both the adults outside and the children inside are going to feel that they’re being kept physically separate, so that feeds into an anxiety about the idea that children and adults might have everyday contact with each other.” Our fear of letting adults and children mix has grown to the extent, says Tim, that he has heard of parents that are now refusing to let their children play in friends’ homes unless the friends’ parents have received CRB checks.

The consequence of this over-protectiveness, he argues, is that children find it increasingly difficult to cope with life’s challenges: “There seems to be a growing feeling that adolescents’ mental health is in decline; and we’re seeing greater levels on the one hand of anxiety and depression, and on the other hand, of what psychologists call conduct disorder, and what others call ‘going off the rails’.”

Adults tend to respond to emotional and health problems among children by attempting to address each problem individually – what Tim calls a “Humpty-Dumpty” approach of putting childhood back together again in a piecemeal way: “We say, ‘The kids aren’t regulating their emotions, so we need to give them emotional literacy; they’re not developing social skills so we need to teach them how to get along with each other; they’re not developing higher order discovery learning approaches or their curiosity seems to be waning, so we’ll give them curiosity lessons,’ and at the very least I want to ask the question: Are we tackling the symptoms rather than the cause?”

Children haven’t always had these problems, he points out: “There are lots of things that children throughout history appear to have learnt fairly well without anybody teaching them. So when proposals come along for educational initiatives for children, whether it’s emotional literacy or resilience or higher learning skills, it raises the question for me: Is that needed? And if so, why is that needed? And maybe, is there another way?”

How can we reverse the trend? Tim thinks that many parents now in their 30s and 40s are struck by the contrast between the freedoms they enjoyed and the lack of freedom experienced by their children, giving us a window of opportunity to rethink our attitudes to children. One part of the solution is to create more child-friendly communities, with plenty of outdoor spaces where children can play unsupervised. These still exist in many parts of Europe, such as Scandinavia, he says.

Another is simply to interfere less in children’s lives: “Our first response to children’s problems should be, ‘See if you can work it out for yourself,’ and that equally goes for social disputes and emotional issues.”

And we should also, he argues, “move away from a philosophy of protection to a philosophy of resilience. A philosophy of resilience means being prepared to accept adverse outcomes, to accept that sometimes children get hurt or upset, and occasionally something might go badly wrong, and just because something’s gone badly wrong doesn’t mean someone else is to blame. So adopting a philosophy of resilience has to run right the way down the chain of command.”

It’s not easy to reverse a very rapid and widespread trend: children’s lives have narrowed rapidly in the space of 30 years. But it may be essential if, as Tim puts it in ‘No Fear’, children are to grow up as “engaged, self-confident, responsible, resilient citizens: people who both feel they have some control over their destinies and are alive to the consequences of their actions.”