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01Mar12i Furedi wrote book

Stop being paranoid, Britain's parents told

Controversial book says obsessive fears about children's safety are a bigger threat than bullies or paedophiles

Maureen Freely and Martin Bright

March 11, 2001 The Observer

A controversial new book on child-rearing to be published this week will urge parents to let their children take more risks and stop panicking about playground bullies and paedophiles. The book's author, Frank Furedi, Reader in Sociology at the University of Kent, argues that parents' obsession with the safety of their children is more damaging than the risks themselves.

Paranoid Parenting: Abandon Your Anxieties And Be A Good Parent says parents should be wary of traditional 'child-centred' experts and urges the Government not to meddle in the family and parenting.

Penelope Leach, Britain's leading childcare authority and a target of the book, said: 'Almost everyone who writes about children has something to offer and I don't understand why we end up being so aggressive with each other.' However, she said that she had some fundamental disagreements with Paranoid Parenting : 'He concludes that governments should not get involved, but I cannot think of a more appropriate issue for policy than children's issues.'

Furedi is no stranger to controversy. He was a prominent member of the Revolutionary Communist Party, a Trotskyite group whose members founded the magazine Living Marxism or LM . The magazine was forced to close last year after it lost a libel case against ITN, which it had accused of doctoring footage of Serb concentration camps. LM was one of the few British publications sympathetic to the Serb cause.

In his new book, Furedi argues children are introduced to the culture of fear from the moment they are born. This begins with new measures to guard against hospital babynappers and is followed by guidelines about the minimal risk of cot death. Arriving home, they are surrounded by an army of midwives, health visitors and doctors. They then hem themselves in even more by buying childcare books. As their babies grow, their insecurity makes them easy prey for manufacturers.

Furedi is also concerned about the mixed messages in the news. One day a national charity will be castigating parents for turning their children into couch potatoes; the next, he argues, it will announce that letting children play outdoors on their own is a form of child abuse.

Add to this fears about accidents in the home and paedophiles, and it's small wonder many parents are inclined to be overprotective, says Furedi. Fear of abuse means no one dares to watch over children who are outside without their adult 'owners'. But in watching their backs, they are undermining what Furedi calls 'adult solidarity'. The casual neighbourhood safety net has disappeared, leaving children who do venture beyond their front doors far less protected than they were before. The author also attacks Dr Jane Healy, a childcare specialist who received publicity last year for telling a parenting conference that young children should not be put in front of computers because this changed the way their brains were wired. Supporters of Healy have said her argument was misrepresented in media scare stories that followed. They say that her central argument was that parents need not think they have to buy all the latest educational gizmos, as research showed the children learnt more when parents put their child on their knee and read them a storybook - a position not dissimilar to Furedi's.

According to Paranoid Parenting , it is cruel to keep children inside. They need room to explore the world around them, they need time to make their own friendships in their own way without an army of anxious adults monitoring their every movement.

But at the heart of the Furedi argument is an attack on government interference and in particular Labour's social policy: 'The politicisation of parenthood is a failure of the political imagination. Unable to work out effective social policies that can tackle the real problems facing British society, some politicians have been persuaded that if they can re-educate parents everything would turn out fine. Politicians, who have failed to provide Britain with a decent system of education, somehow assume that nevertheless they are fit to educate parents.'

Furedi told The Observer that he hopes the book will help parents put their anxieties in perspective, and understand that 'most of the really big issues that plague parents have little to do with problems instrinsic to child-rearing'. He believes they should turn their backs on experts and build on their own experiences. Rather than seek support from professionals in all matters, he'd like parents to pay more attention to friends and relatives familiar with their way of life.

Critics of Furedi, such as Guardian columnist Catherine Bennett, argue that he is simply giving parents more to worry about. Writing last week, Bennett quoted Furedi's concern that playground areas are now covered with rubber to limit the damage when a child falls. 'Should they, perhaps be constructed from something more challenging: shards of broken glass, say, or the traditional grit which was once so successful at lacerating young knees?'


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