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Protection risks doing more harm than good

Sandra Dick,, January 18, 2005

A bewildered little girl is banned from giving her friends Christmas presents at school, another sternly told sharing her birthday cake breaches her school's healthy-eating policy.

Elsewhere, the once traditional playground game of conkers is outlawed as a danger sport, children are banned from climbing trees in case they fall and parents told filming the school play is strictly forbidden.

Try entering a public swimming pool with a camera phone or video mobile and there's every chance your motives for being there will be questioned: are you planning to snap your children as they learn to swim or are you really a pervert?

Now librarians in West Lothian are being issued a set of guidelines warning them against - among other things - allowing children to sit on their knee at storytime for fear they may be branded paedophiles. Staff in its 16 libraries and two mobile libraries are being told to refrain from virtually all physical contact - even down to cuddling a distressed child or tending to an injury.

The guidelines, argues the council, are necessary to protect staff from complaints or accusations about their behaviour towards a child, as well as to reassure anxious parents.

Of course, West Lothian Council is far from alone. Indeed, this is just the latest in a long line of directives issued by nervous organisations the length and breadth of the country which have left adults having to think twice about throwing their arms around a sobbing child, tending to a scraped knee or even speaking to a youngster that doesn't happen to be their own.

No wonder many parents and child-care experts are now questioning whether the main reason for so many increasingly bizarre rules is to protect organisations from today's "claims culture" - at the expense of children who are increasingly become "untouchables".

Frank Furedi, a sociologist at Kent University and author of child-care book Paranoid Parenting, is among those who firmly believe the scales have tipped much too far in the wrong direction. 

"Public concern with safety has reached obsessive proportions," he warns.

"Directives such as this library's are all about distancing children from adults - we are being told not to have anything to do with children who are not our own. That's a very powerful message, it suggests children's lives are no-go areas for adults."

There is, he warns, a serious impact on children's view of the adult world as a result.

"It means we are telling them that adults are a group of predators - hardly role models for the future generation. Also, human physical contact is part of everyday behaviour, but we are telling our children that only mum and dad can do that: we are complicating the whole area of emotional and physical contact.

"If children have this idea of what adults are, then what kind of adults can we expect them to become?"

The kind, it seems, who have to think twice about offering their friends Christmas presents in case, as one five-year-old Sussex girl was recently told by her school, it puts "undue pressure" on other parents to buy return gifts. Child psychologist Dr Pat Spungin, who runs , agrees today's stringent regulations surrounding our children's safety may well have an impact on our their future behaviour.

"I believe we are seeing a culture now where children are fearful of touch unless it's from someone who is familiar to them or someone who is very close to them - and that's a great shame," she says.

Hazel Kennedy, 55, a Sea Scout petty officer from Leith, agrees that the rules are troublesome but insists they are there to protect everyone. 

"It's not easy when you have a youngster who is hurt or upset, your natural instinct is to help them straight away in whatever way you can," she says.

"Instead, if you do have to help them by, say, treating a wound, you always have to make sure there is someone else in the room with you. I sometimes find myself training just one child at a time, so I always make sure I keep a door wide open.

"It's a shame," adds Hazel, of Tolbooth Wynd. "But the rules are there to protect us all."

At Girlguiding Scotland, strict "Safe from Harm" policies are in place which advise physical contact should be avoided where possible. A spokesperson explains: 

"When it does occur it should be ?appropriate? and with the girl's permission.

"Working within those guidelines, however, leaders also need to create a supportive, caring and happy atmosphere. We recognise that a girl may approach her leader and wish to make physical contact - such as a Rainbow [aged five to seven] needing to be comforted because she's missing her parents or hurt herself.

"In those instances leaders would return a hug that is initiated but would then set about occupying her with something else." 

But why have we became such a jittery nation, terrified that our every move in the presence of a child could land us in court?

Craig Connal QC, commercial litigation partner at McGrigors solicitors, which has offices in Edinburgh and nationwide, says today's regulations are a result of organisations' attempts to head-off the threat of legal action or even the costs of investigating a complaint.

"Employers may be thinking of their own pockets, the best interests of their staff and, in other cases, they may be driven by insurers who are asking what steps they have taken to avoid claims and what instructions have they given staff."

"It's often forgotten when people look at statistics and debate whether there is a claims culture, that it's not simply measured by the number of cases that end up in court or the decisions. Say it's the head librarian who is sitting at home under suspension while a complaint is investigated - all that public cost has been incurred."

Iain Whyte, Tory group leader at Edinburgh City Council, is another who believes the balance has tipped too far in the wrong direction. 

"We are getting to a stage where we are taking children away to protect them from a few small minority of people or the very few occasions where something might go wrong," he says.

"But children do need contact. They need love and care. And I would hope that with all the other safeguards in place these days to protect children that there really is no need for all of this."

Gone mad?

THE letters PC have become part of our language. But do they stand for politically correct - or plain crazy?

And do some genuine health and safety concerns go just a little too far?

Tinsel was banned from a school Christmas party at a Gloucester school last month because the headmaster feared pupils might strangle themselves if they draped it around their necks.
Pupils at Aqueduct County Primary School in Shropshire have been banned from bringing birthday cakes to school to share with friends because it breaches a healthy-eating policy.
Children at Menstrie Primary School in Clackmannanshire were banned from playing conkers in October, because two pupils suffer from nut allergies. Some parents branded the ban an overreaction and unfair on the majority of pupils.
Two years ago Edinburgh City Council teaching staff received an order warning them not to shout at unruly pupils, branding it "inappropriate and unprofessional". One teacher said at the time: "It's a disgrace. Ideally we prefer not to shout but there are times when you have to."
Last year, West Lothian Council became the first in Scotland to ban mobile phone cameras from schools amid fears pictures of pupils could be taken without their knowledge or permission.

Paranoid Parenting by Frank Furedi is published by Allen Lane

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