I have a challenge for you:
Go outside at about 4pm onto your street, any day of the week. Make sure you keep your clothes on.
Have a listen.
Can you hear the sound of happy children playing together in the neighbourhood?
I can’t. If you can, you’re incredibly lucky and increasingly rare. We should put you in a zoo.
I’ve got a great idea for a dystopian science fiction novel. In this novel, children are not seen in public unless chaperoned by a guardian. Children are so precious, that they are not even allowed out of the house. Those children who are allowed outside can only play in designated play zones, which are tiny and overcrowded. Children are not allowed to hurt themselves anymore, so the playzones are coated in rubber. Children are also constantly monitored. Any interaction between children who do not know each other is deemed to be a potentially threatening situation. Adults are conditioned to not interact with any child who does not belong to them for fear of a mob lynching… Except this is not a novel, it has already happened, it is our current reality HOLY SHIT! DRAMATIC MUSIC, WAKE UP SHEEPLE & etc.
Parents are seriously agoraphobic-by-proxy these days. I never see kids playing in the street anymore. In fact, this creeping malaise has happened so slowly and insidiously, I can’t even work out when playing in the street went from socially acceptable, to being the sign of a delinquent irresponsible parent.
I’m not alone in noticing this. In fact, you’ve probably read or watched hundreds of articles today about how kids don’t play outside. Usually the article is written about how children are not leading active lives, and are now in danger of developing obesity later in life. We only have ourselves to blame for this.
Thing is, annoyingly, I’m as guilty as the next parent. If my daughter asked me to let her play 200 yards from our house, out of sight, out of earshot, I’d totally say no without hesitation. I am being a massive hypocrite. By the age of five I was already playing away further than that, riding bikes, scraping knees, having the occasional run-in with a weirdo.
So why don’t I let my kid out into the wide open air? What am I scared of?
The answer is simple: Other people. Other people walking around, other people driving cars, other people not paying attention, other people not thinking about children. Other people who are more interested in themselves than they are for the wellbeing of youngsters. Other people judging me for being a bad parent for letting my kid play outside WHICH IS FUCKING STUPID when you think about it. Now my fear of harm befalling my child could mean anything from falling over and scraping a knee, or a random adult driving too fast in a 20mph zone, right through to the sexual exploitation of local kids by the local creepy guy.
The cars-thing is, I think, reasonable to a certain extent. Traffic has increased on our roads on a massive scale in the last 30 years. Look at any footage or picture of any large town or city from the late 1970s. It looked quite empty back then, compared to now. I live in a quiet street with several families, and yet I never see kids outdoors doing kids-outdoors-playing kind of things. No bikes, no street football, no gangs of under 12s running amok. No shouting. No sounds of play. It’s eerie.
And the worst thing? I know there are a number of families in our street, some with kids that are Alice’s age. I don’t think I’ve ever interacted with any of them. Alice certainly hasn’t. That’s… well, that’s appalling. I grew up in a street of young families, and we played outside and in each others’ houses constantly.
I’ve taught road safety to my kid, of course I have. I cannot yet bring myself to let her cross a road on her own yet. For one thing, I can’t be sure any approaching driver would think to watch out for kids anymore, due to the lack of children running around. For another, I’m not sure I could 100% rely on her to cross the road safely without panicking. I think if I had grown up so protected, I think I would totally lack the confidence to cross a road by myself.
Then there’s stranger danger. My kid is a lovely kid, and talks to everyone she meets about anything, whether the person wishes to be yapped at or not. That’s nice in some ways, and I certainly don’t want to tell her after every encounter with an unfamiliar grown-up that such interactions are wrong and that she should fear everyone older than her. That said, should someone come up to her with the old hey-wanna-see-some-puppies gag, she’d totally fall for it. She’s fucking mad for puppies.
Does this really mean I don’t even trust my own kid?? That’s not good.
Then there’s the old thing of “going into town” for an afternoon. If I carry on like this, when my kid reaches her teens, I’ll probably be reluctant to let her go into town, even with friends. Now, we’ve all been on public transport and we know that weirdos lurk everywhere. How do we know this? Well, back in the day, our parents would give us the bus or train fare to go into town; I certainly was a regular Saturday morning traveller on the bus route by the age of 12, and I learned how to cope with it. But fast-forward 25 years and we’re denying our children the opportunity to learn about bus weirdos on a practical level. Instead, we’re teaching them only the theory, which isn’t quite as profound.
Nowadays, if I see a small child walking around by themselves, I panic. I wonder if I should ask them where their Mummy is. The smaller the child, the bigger the worry. But to be honest, I’d be worried if they were under 11.
In the UK, our biggest influence on this development of fear has been news reports, specifically the horrific case of James Bulger. I don’t think anyone who remembers it actually happening can suppress a shudder on recollection; a small child, with the mother’s attention diverted, led away by two disturbed and abused pre-teens who then tortured and murdered the poor kid. Now, as a parent, the full horror of the event preys on my mind, and I’m not alone. The whole country was affected. I would go so far as to pinpoint that as the moment when young children did not play outside anymore. And since then, more horror stories in the UK: Sarah Payne, The Soham Girls, April Jones, Madeleine McCann. In some of those cases, the parents face as much, if not more, blame for letting the child out of their sight, than the sick fuckers who actually do the murdering.
Just after my kid was born, I remember taking a lunch break, during which, I read the newspaper. That was the day the report on the abuse of Peter Connelly came out. I read the (frank, detailed, horrific) account of the official report into his abuse by his mother and her boyfriend. After reading, I finished my break and went back to work. Ten minutes in, I realised my hands were clenched in fists. This was my first gut reaction. Since then, there are certain things I can’t look at, can’t read, and they’re exclusively concerning the details of violently abused children.
So do you find yourself freaking out over things you see on TV/Film? Since having a kid, I certainly have. I few years ago, I went with another Dad friend to the cinema to see giant robo-monster-fest Pacific Rim, because our wives weren’t interested in vast monsters having fucking smackdowns with giant robo-avatars for some crazy, woman-based reason. In one scene, a very young girl is left alone and orphaned comes face-to-face with a giant crab monster. Funny though that image is out of context (RRRAAAAAH! CRAB MONSTER!!!), at that moment both I and my chum felt instinctively horribly scared for that little girl and it bothered us. I saw a much more disturbing scene in the recent and superb Under The Skin, where a baby is left alone and screaming in distress on a windy beach after the parents are killed. That really fucked with my head – of course it was supposed to, and was a brilliant and effective scene, but I still couldn’t get the image from my mind for days afterwards. Dammit, I got upset by the PC game Bioshock, because it featured scenes of struggling children. OK, they were demonic children, and as a player, you were sort of curing them of their demony-ness, but still, it got to me.
The thing is, before kids, I wouldn’t have had the same empathy for the children in distress. I mean, I would have felt bad, but crucially nowhere near as disturbed, so personally engaged. It’s not that I’ve only just developed empathy in the last few years, but because I never knew or appreciated the fear that is entrenched in society. We’re irrevocably changed. We know, with hindsight, that children were abused on a wide scale for decades; that institutions that were set up to care for children were riddled with abuse. We know that trusted TV entertainers were perverts, and that the Catholic Church actively sought to suppress news of paedophiles in the priesthood. Systematic abuse went on in schools and sports clubs, and the authorities turned blind eyes to it, and ignored countless cases of child exploitation and cruelty. Abuse was the cause of a great hush, the silent acceptance. People tolerated the jokes about schoolgirls, and the imagery of horny teenagers as a sop to dirty old men. These gags were on prime-time television. This harmless fun was a tacit acceptance that it went on by the multitude. How could we have allowed it? Those victims are now today’s parents. We don’t want that mindset to return.
We fear for our children, constantly. We cannot let them out of our sight. We keep them inside the home where, ironically, they’re statistically more likely to suffer a serious accident.
Who knows what the outcome will be? Are we making things worse for our kids? Is all this over-care going to bite the next generation on their collective arses? Have we, in caring for our children, taken away the vital tools they need to grow and develop as people?
Probably. In ten years or so, we’ll begin to find out.
In the meantime of course…