Morning TV on childhood (Part 2)

In 2005, I gave a long interview about my book, Under Pressure, on morning TV in Canada. That means we talked about children, parenting, education, etc. This is Part 2 of the interview. Part 1 is a separate clip on the site.

Morning TV on childhood (Part 1)

In 2005, I gave a long interview about my book, Under Pressure, on morning TV in Canada. That means we talked about children, parenting, education, etc. This is Part 1 of the interview. Part 2 is a separate clip on the site.

In Praise of Snow…

Talk about climate change. Britain is grappling with the largest snowfall in nearly 20 years. London is buried under seven inches of the white stuff – and there are still flurries blowing around outside my window. The country has ground to a halt. In London, there are nobuses, no Tube, no school, nothing.

This is a huge inconvenience for many, but there is also a silver lining. To begin with, children are over the moon to have the day off school. Mine dashed outside in just their pajamas and boots this morning before breakfast. My son declared it the “best day of his life.”

Many Londoners know how he feels. The absence of traffic has changed the whole mood and feel of the city. Streets normally clogged with cars and buses are now full of children (and adults) building snowmen, throwing snowballs and even tobogganing. Neighbours who usually avoid eye-contact are stopping to chat about the weather. This is hardly surprising:Studies around the world show a direct correlation between cars and community: the less traffic that flows through an area (and the more slowly it flows) the more social contact among the residents.

I do not mean to demonize cars. I drive one myself. The trouble is that driving has gained too much ascendancy over walking. For decades, urban life has been haunted by the words of Georges Pompidou, a former president of France: We must adapt the city to the car, and not the other way round.

How wrong can someone be? The city of the future – a truly Slow city – must take a different tack. It must adapt not to the car but to the citizen, to the pedestrian, to human beings. And it shouldn’t wait around for a snowstorm to do so.

By coincidence, this snowfall has hit Britain on the day that alandmark studyon the statechildhood hit the headlines. The report sounds fascinating and flawed, and I will blog on it later once I’ve actually read it. But a quick comment now.

On the BBC this morning, one of the report’s authors blamed the unhappiness of modern British children on career-obsessed parents, competitive schooling, broken families, excessive consumerism etc. But he failed to mention our collective reluctance to let them run around and play outside on their own. If we want happy, healthy kids, then we need to redesign and rethink our cities so that they have plenty of outdoor space for play. And surely reclaiming the streets from traffic must be a first step to achieving that.

Big Brother watch?

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week, a company unveiled a digital watch fitted with a GPS tracker device. Very James Bond. But the device was not designed for English spies with a penchant for Maseratis and martinis. No, the GPS watch its official name isNum8– is aimed at parents who want to keep track of their children.

The company that makes the watch insists that it is not just another nail in the coffin of children’s right to roam. “Only 20% of children are now allowed to go out and play, says the chief executive of Lok8u (get it?). It’s my profound hope that Num8 will help parents feel more comfortable about letting their children go out to play.”

But will it?

I’m not so sure. Maybe it will encourage some parents to let their children play more freely outside – though you might ask what kind of freedom involves constantly updating mum and dad with your exact location to within three metres. But I suspect the watch will just crank up the anxiety for others. For a start, it reinforces the feeling that the world is a horribly dangerous place full of kidnappers, paedophiles and child slavery rings when it is not.

Technology designed to bring peace of mind also has a tendency to do the very opposite. Just look at what happened with the mobile phone, aka the longest umbilical cord in history. Because we can reach our children anytime, anywhere, we do. And if the phone is switched off, or out of range, for a moment, we panic – our child must be in danger, something must be wrong. Then there is the peer pressure: if everyone else is in 24/7 phone contact with their kids, then I must be a bad parent for failing to do the same.

But can we really guarantee round-the-clock electronic monitoring of our children? The makers of Num8 think so. The watch uses satellite and mobile phone networks to track kids indoors and outdoors. It also sends alerts if the Num8 is removed without permission. But what if a child wanders into a black zone where coverage is blocked or weak? Or the network crashes? What happens then to the peace of mind promised in the Num8 advertising?

And even if we could guarantee constant GPS monitoring of our children, is that really a good thing? I don’t think so. Thanks to the modern obsession with eliminating all doubt and danger from our kids’ lives, something important is getting lost the time and space for children to explore the world on their own terms, to take risks, to be completely alone sometimes, to break away gradually from the mother ship. There is nothing quite like the rush of pride a child feels when taking his first steps out into the world on his own walking alone to a friend’s house, or cycling to school by himself. Yet that accomplishment is diminished when you know your parents are anxiously tracking your every move on the home computer. The Num8 also makes it harder to let children go in stages because it is an all-or-nothing device: you either know exactly where your kid is at all times, or you don’t. This presents parents with an agonizing decision: at what age do you allow your child to leave home alone without the Num8? At 10? 15? Or maybe 25?

The bottom line is that the world is nowhere near as dangerous as we think, or as the overheated media portrays it. Children do not need to be electronically tagged like criminals. We could all be a lot less anxious if we ditched the electronic leashes and let kids roam freely as they have throughout history.

A final thought: My guess is that the Num8 will lead to an epidemic of false alarms. It is just such a tempting target for pranksters and bullies just yank it off a child’s wrist in the playground and wait for his hysterical parents (followed by a SWAT team) to come charging to the rescue….

What about Santa?

I wrote a column in yesterday’s Washington Post about the Great Santa Debate and how it shines a light on the anxieties of modern parenting.

Postcards from the edge…

I’m in the US right now touring forUnder Pressure, which means a parade of interviews with radio stations around the country. I love the call-in shows especially because I get to hear from parents, teachers, social workers – all those people on the front-line of child-rearing. And it really seems that there is a growing consensus that we have collectively lost our bearings. Callers often share amusing and/or horrifying examples of hyper-parenting. A few minutes ago someone in Milwaukee said that a friend in New York has sent her infant to mastication classes because she’s worried he’s not chewing well enough. Another story: When a child in Chicago uttered his first word, his mother called in speech therapist to accelerate his language development. Or the parents who papered (literally) their hotel room with bubble-wrap to prevent their toddler from hurting herself. I could go on but I have to go give a talk now….

More stranger danger

Yesterday I did a radio interview with a station in Newfoundland in Canada. Before my segment, I listened to a report of how local police had street-proofed a city there. You heard a voice repeatedly saying “Never do this” and “Don’t do that.”I felt afraid just listening on the phone from the other side of the ocean.Then you heard children talking about how they would run a mile from any strange adult. It was chilling, and depressing. Is that really the message we want to send to our kids? That every grown-up is a potential abuser? That you can’t trust anyone unless you know them personally and they have been formally approved by your parents? What kind of society does that create? And how will children ever learn how to distinguish the very tiny minority who are a threat from the rest of us? Anyway, it made me think again how timely is the Safer Stranger campaign just launched in Britain (see blog post May 7).

Just like riding a bike

The tendency to over-protect children can backfire in lots of ways. Keeping kids cloistered indoors means they don’t learn how to navigate traffic, how to identify a well-meaning stranger or how to play with their peers without an adult taking control. The same may apply to learning to ride a bike. A landmark moment for any parent is buying that first bicycle and slapping on thestabilizers (training wheels)to support the child. But do children actually need that support? And do stabilizers really help them learn how to cycle? Maybe not. Recently, pre-school teachers in London noticed that even children under three were able to balance on two wheels if given half a chance and that they learned better as a result. They also developed more strength, stamina and balance. Said one teacher:”We might be wrong but at every stage we found that what holds them back was not them but us.”To prove the point, one London borough is now running an experiment where kids are given small wooden bikes with no pedals and their progress is monitored. We’ll have to wait for the results but I can already report that at least one two-year-old has almost mastered cycling without stabilizers. He’s the one that ran over my foot in the Battersea Park on the weekend.

The end of Stranger Danger?

Much of the panic and hysteria surrounding children today is focussed on their safety. Many kids are not allowed to venture outside alone. To modern parents, the world beyond the front door looks like a vast cesspool of drug dealers, bullies, paedophiles and rampaging traffic. As a father of two,I know that fear all too well. Sometimes I think it’ll be okay for my children to start walking to school alone when they’re 12. Or maybe 23. The instinct to protect our kids is a natural and noble one, but over the last generation it has tipped so far into paranoia. Even when statistics show that are streets are no more dangerous than before, they still feel more dangerous to us parents. The upshot is that many children are almost being raised in captivity. And they’re missing out on some valuable life lessons: how to handle risk, how to get along with their peers without adults hovering overhead, how to know when to trust a stranger. For years the rallying cry at schools has been “Stranger Danger” – the implication being that the outside world is a hellish, apocalyptic place where every unknown adult is a potential threat. Is that the right message to send to the next generation? Probably not. But thankfully the backlash has begun.This morning, at the House of Commons in London, I attended the launch of a campaign to help children navigate the streets alone by showing them that most adults can be trusted. It’s called Safer Strangers, Safer Buildings. A shortvideoteaches children that they can turn for help to people in uniform (police, doctors, check-out assistants, etc) and certain buildings (churches, shops, post offices, etc). It’s not rocket science, but it punctures the pernicious assumptionthat every stranger is a danger. And anything that makes parents feel less anxious and gets kids outdoors more has to be a good thing.