Some of the UK's leading children's authors have announced this week that they are refusing to take part in readings in schools because of the new policy that requires them to undergo criminal records checks to prove they are not sex offenders.

In the 2007 document Building Brighter Futures the UK government argues ‘One of Government's main roles in safeguarding the young and vulnerable is to help prevent unsuitable people from gaining access to them through their work'. It later boasts, ‘Through the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006, we have legislated to create the most robust scheme ever for vetting individuals who are applying to work with children'.

Philip Pullman, the best selling author, rightly argues that mass vetting ‘corrupts a child's view of the world', making children think that ‘the basic mode is not of trust but suspicion'. He says we are teaching children ‘that the world is a dark and nasty place were everybody wants to murder and rape them... It assumes that the default position of one human being to another is predatory rather than kindness.'

Inculcating children with a fear of all strangers is counterproductive. The message this imparts to parents and children is to be suspicious of any adult who wants to work with children. Josie Appleton, who runs the Manifesto Club's campaign against the blanket vetting of all adults, argues: ‘The vetting of adults in the name of child protection is out of control. Those now being vetted include sixteen-year-olds teaching younger kids to read, parents volunteering at school, and foster carers' friends. Running an after-school club is now subject to more stringent security tests than selling explosives'.

Today it is almost impossible in the UK to take photos of one's children, grandchildren, nieces or nephews in public places - if they are surrounded by other children. When my oldest nephew, Marcus, celebrated his fourth birthday with a pool party in Bristol back in 1996 I was able to take a number of shots of the children having fun in the pool. Ten years later, when his younger brother, Stefan, asked me to come and watch him during his swimming lesson and take some photos of him, all hell broke loose. Sitting by the side of the pool engrossed in conversation with a friend, I absentmindedly pulled the camera out of my bag. Mid-conversation I became aware of a kerfuffle going on in the background - whistles were being blown and lifeguards were waving their hands and shouting at someone. Turning our attention to the noise, wondering what on earth was going on, we realized that the lifeguards were shouting at me to put the camera away, as if I had taken a deadly weapon out of my bag. No photos could be taken of my nephew Stefan on the proud day he was able to swim an entire length of the pool for the first time.

The sad consequence of all this regulation is that, one way or another, children will pick up signals about stranger danger, the problem of photography, the implications of vetting - and the only message it is possible to draw from this is that it should not be taken for granted that you can trust adults.

Another side effect of today's culture of fear - and in particular of the paedophile panic - is that adults no longer feel confident to step in to help children in trouble. A survey of 500 men by Identikids, the ID tag company, found that 75 per cent of men will not help children in distress for fear of what it looks like to others. Because of heightened awareness of paedophilia there is concern about helping children in public places who appear to be lost or in a vulnerable situation. Twenty-three per cent would ignore the child completely. Others would find a woman or another member of the public. This suspicion extends to other adults too: 67 per cent of men would be concerned about the intent of a man who did approach a distressed child.

This is not just a UK phenomenon. Canadian therapist Michael Ungar writes in Too Safe for Their own Good: 'I'm always anxious about helping a child who isn't mine in public places. I'm always worried about what parents will think. What will they make of a strange man touching their child even if it is only in the most innocent of ways? I hear other parents say they too are no longer willing to take responsibility for the unsupervised children in our communities'.

Indeed, such is the climate of suspicion surrounding adults who work with children today that teachers, youth club workers and others are reluctant to comfort injured or distressed children. Important research carried out by Dr Heather Piper and a team at Manchester Metropolitan University showed a growing unease among teachers, and even nursery workers, about touching the children in their care. Piper reported a number of worrying incidences, including a male gym teacher leaving a girl injured in the hall while he waited for a female colleague, and a teacher refusing to put a plaster on a child's scraped knee.

The researchers found that anxiety about touching children is mainstream. So why are those people the researchers describe as ‘decent and competent childcare professionals' depriving children of the care they need? Piper believes that the staff have internalized a sense of mistrust: they have ended up watching each other for signs of suspicious behaviour. She describes this as a ‘perfect panopticon'. The ‘panopticon' is an ‘all-seeing' type of prison, a concept invented by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, which allows an observer to watch all prisoners without the prisoners being able to tell whether they were being observed or not. Bentham said the Panopticon was ‘a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.'

As I argue in Reclaiming Childhood adults should behave like adults and build up children's confidence to get by in the wider world. That means leading children down the road to adulthood, giving them the chance to engage with people they do not know, and giving them something to aspire to, not teaching them to fear and deride the adult world.

If we can harness a more positive outlook about our fellow human beings and challenge institutionalized suspicion and state-authorized scaremongering, then we really might free up our children's lives and allow them both to enjoy themselves and to learn through living.

About the Author

Helene Guldberg

Helene Guldberg, Ph.D., is the author of Reclaiming Childhood: freedom and play in an age of fear.

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