To feel safe and secure is the right of every child and young person in the world. In this country, in this century, what does that mean for a young child?
“Inspectors found that 97% of the 25,000 childcare providers inspected between April 2005 and March 2006 were satisfactory or better in keeping children in their care safe from harm. Very few (3%) were deemed inadequate. In the same period, 98% of providers were satisfactory or better at helping children to be healthy. Very few (2%) were inadequate.”
Ofsted, August 2006
Protection of children implies that there is some mechanism or strategy for safeguarding children during play, whilst at home, when in the care of others, sleeping and eating and so on. There are certainly strict guidelines in terms of health and safety concerning public play equipment for example. RoSPA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents) has produced a guide for each piece of standard playground equipment including the surface under swings and slides. Regular risk assessments must be carried out and recorded in all public play areas.
Allowing children to take risks during play should be encouraged, but unnecessary risk or danger must be avoided where possible. In a previous article (August 2006: Playing in Safety) I mentioned how children in our country and in most European communities are expected to be able to demonstrate courage during play. Play is a time when one’s abilities, strengths and decision making can be tested. The adult’s role is to ensure that the risks taken by small children are challenging enough whilst allowing for adequate supervision and very little interference.
Adventure during play sometimes means accepting challenges and taking risks. These can be physical tests of skill and strength or equally demanding tests of character, such as taking the lead role in play, or demanding that the rules be obeyed.
The Danger of Over-reaction
I listened to a radio discussion recently about parents and grandparents being forbidden to take photographs or videos of their children’s achievements in plays, at football or other tournaments, at prize-giving ceremonies. One grandparent was banned from watching his grandchild perform her ballet routine because he had not been CRB checked. He was distraught because he had to remain behind a screen and could only hear the music. Apparently now a licence or permission certificate must be given to parents to guarantee that the pictures of their children (and possibly incidentally some of their friends) do not get to appear on the internet.
The risk of this is very small. It is yet another example of blind panic and prejudice. If a paedophile was going to use pictures of children to perpetuate their behaviour, they could just as easily use a Mothercare catalogue or any photos of children from newspapers or magazines. Parents, school and communities should take a step back and see the consequences of their actions, which are so sort-sighted that children cannot play normally and cannot make those developmental breakthroughs associated with independent play.
I have worked with habitual child abusers especially those who share photos of children and who search the internet for potential victims. School photos are safe, unless the child’s details are printed.
Time would be spent better by ensuring that security is up to scratch and that all children are encouraged to make decisions about their own safety. A safe child is one who can think for hom or herself. A vulnerable child is one who has been trained to assume that all adults have the right to tell them what to do. The most valuable lesson parents can offer their children is that of self-reliance and the right to be heard when they say, “No”.
Children do worry about aspects of life, despite what the adults who love them wish to think. I can remember as a child going to sleep facing the door to my room so that if a burglar came in, he would think I was awake and go away -all the more surprising because my father was a police officer and the house was a police house!
Just because we tell children they don’t need to worry, does not prevent them from doing so. If any parents of young children asked them what they had thought of doing to keep themselves safe if Mummy or Daddy couldn’t get to collect them from school on time, they would be startled by some of the imaginative methods their children might have considered. Discussing safer ways to keep safe would be a better use of their energies.
Learning through Being Afraid
Most parents believe that they are vigilant and knowledgeable enough to protect their children from abuse from other adults or older children. In most instances, that means that their children are hardly ever allowed to play out of their sight. This is detrimental to the children’s development and relationships with their parents.
It may sound bizarre, but children need to be scared. That is why they choose scary stories at specific ages, or they demand to go on the ghost train at the local fair, or they want to go on the most frightening of rides. Feeling frightened is a healthy aspect of life, provided that it is only ever temporary and that everything is all right in the end. They don’t watch Doctor Who to see the pretty flowers.
It is an unfortunate reflection on the harshness of life, that some children will spend time worrying about their parents’ safety and security. If a family suffers financial difficulties, the children worry when they hear the arguments, or see one or other parent turn to alcohol or other means of blotting out reality. About half of marriages end in divorce. Where parents do not marry, the separation of partners is also high. Children living in unsettled families cannot feel secure and safe. This is reflected in some of the reasons why children refuse to attend school. They do not want to leave home because they feel that by remaining there, one or other parents will not leave.
The Mental Health of Children and Adolescents in Great Britain Survey (1999)
considered ‘reconstituted families’, and found that “The relationships between family members in the household were examined to see if any of the children were step-sons or stepdaughters. This search was carried out for all children in the family not just the sample child. Thus, a family was regarded as reconstituted if a step-child was present. Overall, about 9% of the children in the survey lived in reconstituted families. Mental disorders were more prevalent among children of reconstituted families than those without step children: 15% compared with 9%.”
Managing Life Safely
I do not believe that children should be sheltered from life, but rather that they should be offered life in manageable chunks. If you do not feel safe, you cannot think beyond how to keep yourself safe. If you are so caught up in this, you cannot eat, sleep or form meaningful relationships. Children who are in fear are often distracted and aimless. A skilled early year’s practitioner should be able to identify such behaviours and find ways to understand how difficult life can be when you are three or four and no one really tells you what is happening. What you are not told, you will make up and sometimes, your imagination is much more frightening than the truth.
Children can manage all sorts of bad news; what they cannot deal with are the insecurities which are created by adults who mean well. It is much better to deal honestly with a child instead of pretending.
I recall a story told to me by one of my mature students about when her father died. He died suddenly and the adults in the family, including her, had an unspoken agreement to act cheerfully for the children’s sake. Her son, who was about 4 when his much loved grandfather died, never saw his mother cry, nor did he see any emotional reactions from anyone else. He was kept away from the funeral preparations and was not allowed to attend for that final goodbye.
His relationship with his mother deteriorated from then and as he grew older, they hardly ever communicated. He left home as soon as he could and did not include her in any of his own life celebrations. She was very hurt by this.
Eventually when he himself became a parent, he told his mother how angry he had been with her. He thought that no one cared about his grandfather because no one cried. He then considered, with the reasoning of a small child, that if they didn’t love grandfather, they probably didn’t love him and wouldn’t miss him if he died. He lived with that sense of injustice and insecurity all of those years.
His mother was bewildered and couldn’t understand that her actions, as a loving parent could have been so misconstrued. She and her son attempted to bridge the chasm, but it was too late.