As parents, we all have an instinctive desire to protect our children and to do the best for them. This innate desire was, until recently, relatively uncomplicated. Children were raised to live in a world that was divided into an adult world – which was largely mysterious and off-limits to children – and a child’s world which was largely benign and removed from some of the worst aspects of modern life. It was a world in which children were told what they needed to know; it was a world in which many (although, clearly, not all) grew up feeling loved and secure and where commonsense parenting was good enough. Of course, the pressures were fewer and the risks not so great, yet the world was not all that dissimilar.
Sadly, this is no longer the case. The world, as we read about it, has turned into a malevolent place, full of threats and dangers. Just walking to school is to countenance risks from cars, cyclists, diesel fumes, other children – possibly armed and dangerous – and lurking predatory adults. Under the adage that 'to be forearmed is to be forewarned', we teach our children to stay safe. They are told not to stray far from home, to wait to be collected from school, to be aware of what they eat and drink and to be suspicious of adults. Little wonder they are growing up anxious.
The result is that we now have a situation where parents are so worried at the rising epidemic of mental illness and stress-related disorders amongst children, that they don’t know quite how to respond. But what is it making them so powerless in the face of anxiety? One area is that many parents feel that they have lost control of the conduit of information to their children – not only through the internet – but also from the various initiatives that the Government has launched in schools. Each programme implemented may have laudable aims but the danger comes when introduced too young, and when the issues discussed are ones which many parents feel uncomfortable with, without proper support. With education, readiness is so very important, and especially in issues that pertain to the emotional development of children.
Schools have a very significant responsibility to consider readiness in all that they do, thereby avoiding teaching abstract concepts before children can assimilate them. We need to look more closely at the effect of what we tell children and ensure we impart a little optimism, especially in PSHEE, rather than the old fare of looking at diseased lungs resulting from smoking, cirrhosed livers from drinking, or dealing with such topics as death and bereavement, bullying and crime – hardly a recipe for making happy children. Where there were once rules, expectations, and codes of conduct within families and schools, more often than not, children are being left to wrestle with processing adult information on their own.
With increased academic pressure, we cannot always rely on schools to be objective. Some fixate about their position in the annual league tables. Ironically, this pressure would be reduced if prospective parents recognised league tables as being a wholly unhelpful indicator when choosing a school. But what worries children? What should we tell them? And when?
The fear of war, dying and the unknown has always worried young children so, where possible, protect them from the worst images at a young age. Children should not have an open-door access to television or the internet and need rules and guidelines. Be a parent. Be wary of fads and peer pressure to treat your children as older than they actually are. Parents who befriend their children and drag them into their adult world (‘have another glass of wine, dear’) are not doing them any favours. Be aware, also, of what schools are telling your children so you can discuss with them the broader issues. If your school is raising sensitive issues, ensure you are happy that your child has the intellectual and emotional maturity to deal with them. Putting choice in front of teenagers can be confusing and even deeply troubling; and remember that adolescents are likely to react to issues according to how their peers react as much as what their hormones tell them.
In the end, children need to feel safe and, as a rule, will ask when they feel they need to know something. Talk to children about the internet, not as a doorway to the dark side. Instead, look at it as a tool that requires rules and a code of ethics. As a rule, however, unless asked, tread lightly and don’t feel your children have to know everything. Better an ignorant child than an anxious one.
We live with the contradiction between wanting to keep our children safe by protecting them from themselves and the problem of teaching them to identify threats and therefore take measured risks. It is a growing problem that schools are sometimes struggling to deal with and requires a more open partnership between parents and teachers. Sadly, too many children are growing up frightened by the world they live in with all its threats and complications.
Despite the Government’s insistence on telling children more about social issues at an ever younger age, what should count above all else is one simple question: ‘Are they happy?’ There is plenty of time to be an adult – but let’s just pause before we fast track our children into our adult world.