Wrapping children in cotton wool is a metaphor for over-protective parenting; but as it happens cotton wool can be dangerous stuff – at least judging by the warning I found on one packet of it, which read: “this product is made from natural materials and may contain small seed fragments.” Scary.

There’s no doubting that ours is a risk averse society – especially so when it comes to children. Obviously, it’s a good thing we don’t send small boys up chimneys anymore, but as Jessica Grose and Hanna Rosin report for Slate, there’s a widespread perception that we’ve gone too far the other way:

“In July, South Carolina mother Debra Harrell was arrested for allowing her 9-year-old daughter to play in the park unattended while she was at work. Harrell’s arrest prompted outrage, but also an outpouring of nostalgia, as indignant readers remembered activities they routinely did as children that are considered near criminal today.”

The change in attitudes is well-documented:

“Broad surveys show that childhood norms have shifted drastically over a generation (in 1971, for example, 80 percent of third-graders walked to school alone, but by 1990, only 9 percent did), and our survey of Slate readers confirms that trend. We asked, for example, when readers were allowed to walk 1 to 5 miles from home. For the cohort born in the 1940s, the majority answered second to third grade. By the time we get to the cohort born in the 1980s, the age shifts to fifth grade, and for the 1990s cohort, we are solidly in middle school.”

(For those unfamiliar with US educational terminology, third-graders are 8-to-9 year olds, fifth-graders are 10-to-11 year olds, and those attending middle school are 11-to-14 year olds.)

I was born in the 1970s and wasn’t allowed to walk to school because, living in the countryside, there were no pavements (though plenty of cars). However, away from the roads, we were free to roam far and wide. Furthermore, we’d happily talk to any grown-ups we encountered, including Mr Ostend the melancholy German fruit farmer, Bob the beekeeper and his psychotic Old English Sheepdog, and a person known to us only as ‘the Countess’, who owned the woods where we built camps, felled small trees and generally made a nuisance of ourselves. 

With the exception of the dog, none of these individuals represented the slightest danger – but, these days, such interactions would be frowned upon. The same goes for letting children spend hours out of sight or sound of a supervising adult. And as for letting them chop down trees on somebody else’s land…well, it’s political correctness gone mad!

Grose and Rosin argue that the most significant shift in attitudes took place during the 1980s following a number of high profile child abduction cases. In fact, so-called ‘stranger danger’ has not increased: 

“A child is no more likely to be abducted by a stranger today than he was in the 1970s, according to David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center. Abductions have increased, but that’s almost entirely due to estranged spouses or parents kidnapping their own children.”

Perhaps, our growing fears for the physical safety of children signifies a very different threat:

“What has changed over the last 40 years is our sense of community. Mothers work, neighbors talk less, and the divorce rate began to creep upward in the 1970s and has remained at around 45 percent. Rates of single motherhood have exploded since the 1980s. But that kind of change is so ubiquitous that it becomes almost invisible, so instead we turn it into a concrete evil: the creep lurking just around the corner.”

Compared to previous generations, children are no more likely to come to harm when playing outside. But when they come home at the end of day, they’re less likely to find an intact family or a supportive community waiting for them.

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