Obsession with keeping children safe is causing them untold damage

Children playing outside

Enjoy half term at Audley End - Credit: English Heritage

Children today look so sad.

Their lives seem joyless, caged at home, or strapped in cars, gazing miserably out of the window at a world they’re not allowed to explore.

When was the last time you heard joyful excited children running free and full of fun outdoors? Even on the brightest of winter days, playgrounds stand empty and the age of people enjoying our stretches of spectacular beaches are over 35.

Beaches are natural adventure playgrounds for children, but they’re nowhere to be seen at weekends. Dogs are allowed more fun, freedom and real play than children in 2022.

Mollycoddling and curtailing any freedom to take risks by "protecting" them from harm had escalated before the pandemic.

Now, after nearly two years of being locked at home, keeping away from people and virus spreaders, mask wearing and life in the effective straitjacket of restrictions, we’re staring at a crisis of character for the poor little mites. What a soulless childhood we are inflicting on them.

Fearful, frightened, reticent and withdrawn are the last words any of us would want our children to be labelled. But they are. At the only age when life could be wall-to-wall fun.

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A worried-looking child should always ring alarm bells. No child should look like the or she is carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders.

The irony is that we are inflicting untold damage on our children by an obsession to keep them safe.

The unthinkable is that they will grow up hopeless at keeping themselves safe. By protecting them now, we’re making them incapable of dealing with tricky situations in the future.

We must press reset now on childhood to encourage confident, sassy risktakers and leaders are made of the feeble scared pale sheep we risk turning out.

As pandemic restrictions list, it offers the perfect space to rethink what childhood we want children to have. We all must play a part.

Every child should know carefree happiness, where life is an adventure and the world open to discover and enjoy. Instead, we’ve settled for children watch a world from inside with their screens delivering adventure and experience. All done from the sofa or their beds. Sure, it’s easier parenting that way.

The clear harm we’re inflicting on children bubbled to the surface this week when a great TV advert for Dairylea was banned by the Advertising Standards Authority.

The advert was full of joy and wonder. It’s what children should be doing – outside and being children. Two girls hang upside down on a park cross bar, pondering where the squishy cheese triangle would go if they ate one upside down. The brain, one said.

It was fabulous to see the girls hanging upside down. My memoires of playtime between the ages of six and nine were spent in that exact position, hanging upside down on the climbing frame chatting to friends. If we fell off because the boys pushed us, we gave as good as we got and hung ourselves back up, gripping our knees tighter.

But it rankled with handful of viewers who complained, 14 to be precise, that it promoted unsafe behaviour by encouraging children to eat upside down.

I watched Tom and Jerry in the 1970s but knew that a body-shaped hole would never be the only damage suffered if I ran at full pelt towards a plate glass window. We never tried it because we knew the danger.

Dairylea sadly responded saying it only wanted to show parents allowing their child freedom. Children out playing, doing what children should do, not a watchful parent eye in sight.

Reinventing childhood is urgent. Months of sticking probes up children’s nostrils, escalating anxiety about getting the ‘disease’, fearing to touch things because of germs, seeing danger not adventure outside their front doors and institutionalised by restrictions has done untold damage.

How will they learn to make their own decisions, assess risks and problems they face, get themselves from A to B without help?

A serious responsibility to encourage independence has been forgotten in parenting. It might be easier in busy lives to make decisions for them, keep them in sight and settle for a sloth-like screen addict.

But it’s only suppressing huge future problems when they can’t work their way out of a paper bag when they have to, and a generation of bewildered ninnies is unleashed into a world they are totally unprepared for.

Three years ago, a survey found 60pc of parents and 62pc of grandparents believe childhoods today are getting worse. This picture is far worse today.

If there was ever a time to look at the freedoms and adventure children really need to grow up rounded and capable, and work together to deliver it, it’s now.

If the Prime Minister who made the rules and told us numerous times to follow them can use the defence that he didn’t know he was going to an event that would break the rules and expect us all to believe it, so should everyone fined for pandemic-rule breaking.

What has happened this week makes a mockery of all the arrests and fines, and those fines should be waived.

We’re all in this together, remember.