Reading the Sunday New York Times can often be a cathartic experience but I could almost feel my blood boil this weekend when reading Benedict Carey's article. We were informed of the latest plan by City officials to have so-called 'play workers' - now that's something of an Orwellian oxymoron if ever there was one - to 'help guide fantasy play'. The artist rendering of these proposed overseers of our youngsters has them dressed in matching bright yellow shirts and baseball caps. What a nasty and small-minded approach to the slender few years children (decreasingly) have to explore the world around them and to actually play.
Increasingly, adults are supervising every aspect of children's lives. Fair enough, we might venture, as these vulnerable little people make their first tender steps and interactions in the world, responsible parents and care givers want to ensure they are supported. And, it's true, every day, you hear scary stories about how real-life dangers ensnared actual kids ‐ kids just like your own. However, life is a risky business and any attempt to eliminate all the possibilities of risk will only end up ensuring we create a generation of people who are incapable of experimenting and testing out and - heaven help us - pushing through contemporary boundaries.
Just how risky is modern life for children though? Recently I moderated an event on parenting in New York and I cited examples from both sides of the Atlantic in an attempt to understand how our fears are played out throughout the West. A lead article in July 2006 in The London Times by Carol Midgley pointed out that despite our heightened sense of risk and the view that things have gotten steadily more dangerous for our kids, in 1976, 668 under-16s were killed on the roads compared to 166 in 2004. Child homicieds have stayed constant at an average of 79 a year since the 1970s. As Frank Furedi, a British sociologist and author of Paranoid Parenting has argued, perhaps we are creating a "culture of fear' that has led parents to restrict their children's independence.
Judith Warner, in a July 2006 New York Times article about summer camp, sketched out a dismal vision of the current sentiment under the heading, 'Loosen the Apron Strings.' She suggested that "Parents today, apparently, don't want their kids out in the wilds where they might walk in the paths of potentially tick-bearing Bambis. They don't want their kids out of reach, where they can't take a mood reading at each and every at-risk moment of the day."
Much has been written recently about "cotton wool kids' both in Europe and in the US where some schools insist that teachers do corrections in lavender ink because red marks are too 'traumatising' for children. Even games of tag in some American schools are banned in favour of a non-aggressive playground pastime called "circle of friends", while children's books are vetted by "sensitivity committees" to ensure they contain no mention of scary animals such as snakes, rats or mice or even of peanuts in case the word upsets allergy sufferers .
A key part of this trend of seeking to over compensate for any potential hazards is what has come to be known as the 'precautionary principle' - which puts forward the view that as we do not know what the outcome will be of any particular experiment (scientific or political) we should avoid the experiment altogether. This is a dismal mindset that takes the 'better safe than sorry' motto and elevates it to a mantra and restrictive style of living. Indeed, it is difficult to see how many of the incredibly positive leaps forward in society could have been achieved with this narrow and pernicious outlook.
Even worse perhaps, whereas we once saw fellow citizens and colleagues and potential allies that could be relied upon in various circumstances to lend a hand or help out in times of trouble, we are far more likely to view neighbors with suspicion these days it seems. I am sure we all remember the long days of playing out when we were growing up - and adults felt quite comfortable scolding us for rudeness and petulant behavior - as well they should have. Indeed, surely that is how children become responsible collaborating adults, in a network of people who can share values and norms. Unfortunately, the new 'norms' that we seem to be expressing are extremely toxic. The 'stranger-danger' message is the most obvious. Just read any sign in New York City playgrounds that warn 'No adults unaccompanied by children'.
Have we really become that fearful that we wish to impress the message on our youth that the majority of adults are not to be trusted? In the UK the new Vulnerable Persons Bill aims to increase the vetting of a large section of UK citizens, from tennis coaches to drama teachers. This will potentially include up to ten million citizens and while some have protested many have gone along with the underlying assumptions. Often these trends mutually reinforce one another from the US to Europe and vice versa.
It seems to me that we need an injection of common sense and reasoned reflection if we want to avoid the nightmare vision of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty Four where people generally suspect everyone that is around them, families included. Or, put more simply, official yellow shirts bad, regular citizens good.