The shrinking horizon of childhood

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How do we best equip our children for the future? Tim Gill argues that it isn’t through protecting our children needlessly before they have time to find out for themselves. In this article he explains how we can  help our children become resilient and responsible.  

Children are far more resourceful than we give them credit for. Our present society tends to constrain them and prohibit the social learning that used to happen in the street or park. Staff are tending to intervene earlier rather than allowing children choice and experimentation. As a result we are trying to compensate through PHSE programmes as we worry increasingly about children’s ability to cope with bullies and other types of anti-social behaviour.

Although it is very important that bullying is treated seriously, tackled and challenged there are an increasing number of bullying referrals that some might claim are not actually bullying at all. Again early intervention in these cases can mean that children are not developing the skills themselves. Tim refers to examples he has seen in other countries where children still have a great deal of freedom within their child-friendly communities. [CLOSE BOX]

When I was at primary school in the early 1970s my head teacher gave an assembly whose message I can still remember – though I am a bit hazy on the details.  He told us about flax – or was it jute? – anyway, a plant that needed tough conditions to produce the strong fibres that producers were after.  Nurse your specimens in a culture that was too forgiving, he implied, and the results would be weak and frail. 

His views now seem as old-fashioned as the pipe he was so fond of smoking, and I suspect that any head teacher brave or foolish enough to contemplate giving out such a message would risk acrimony and recriminations.  In part, this is understandable.  We know much more about the damage that hostile environments and genuinely harsh treatment can do to children. 

And yet… surely there is more than a grain of truth in his tale.  Children have a huge capacity to learn how to overcome difficult and challenging circumstances, which our culture greatly underestimates.  As the historian Hugh Cunningham notes in his historical survey The Invention of Childhood, we find the idea of the resilient child increasingly difficult to accept.

This change is linked to another profound shift in the nature of modern childhood: the shrinking of its horizons.  It is often said that kids grow up faster today.  While this might describe their adoption of adult styles and attitudes, as a statement about their everyday autonomy nothing could be further from the truth.  Children’s lives are far more constrained and overseen than those of previous generations.  In 1971 the average eight-year-old was travelling around with friends on their own; by 1990 children had to wait another three years before being given this ‘licence’.  This trend appears to be continuing: a survey earlier this year found that half of adults thought children should not be allowed to go out with friends on their own until they were 14 years old.

This loss of everyday autonomy stops many children from learning how to deal with the challenges they will encounter as they grow up.  It also throws up real problems for schools.  Much of the social learning that used to happen in the street or the park now takes place in the playground. And as we know from our own childhoods, while that learning is vitally important, it is not always very pretty.  Sometimes, children can be horrible to each other – just like adults. They need some opportunity to work out for themselves how to deal with a range of hostility, criticism and unpleasant behaviour. 

So it is more important than ever for teachers and playground supervisors to be thoughtful and proportionate in their interventions during break and lunchtime.  It is also important to safeguard these periods as times when children can choose for themselves what they want to do and who with – within reason.  However, curriculum pressures and growing anxiety about children’s bad behaviour are leading staff in many schools to step in ever more quickly and create ever more rules and regulations about playground conduct.

This is why I am concerned about one growing side-effect of anti-bullying initiatives.  There is clear evidence that parents, teachers and indeed children are misdiagnosing minor misdemeanours and fallings-out, by calling them bullying.  Let me be clear: bullying – the systematic, repeated victimisation of the weaker by the stronger – is a serious issue that has to be tackled, and victims need to know they can get support if they need it.  But spats, low-level one-off teasing and critical comments are different.  Children need to be given the chance to learn how to cope with these sorts of challenging social situations for themselves.  It is not always easy to make this distinction, but blurring it does not help children’s social learning, and it does not help schools to focus their efforts on those who need it most.

No doubt you will be thinking ‘it’s all very well calling for children to be given more freedom, but what happens when things go wrong and I or my school has to take the rap?’  There is growing anxiety across society about the so-called blame culture, and its close relative, the compensation culture.  The reality is that the level of liability claims is probably less than many people think, and we are very unlikely to see the kind of claim culture that has become the norm in the US.  Nonetheless, fear of being blamed is a real obstacle to allowing children to learn from their experiences and their mistakes. 

Schools are not alone in facing a growing climate of fear and blame. In my book No Fear: Growing up in a risk averse society, I show how across all levels of society and in many arenas of children’s lives, we have embraced a ‘philosophy of protection’. This is the view that children are in a global sense vulnerable, and that the adult role is to reduce or eliminate the risks they face.  This view simply needs to be questioned if we are to allow children the kind of self-directed experiences that we all know they need.

Moving from a philosophy of protection to what I call in No Fear a philosophy of resilience means accepting that sometimes, children will make mistakes.  What is more, this acceptance needs to go right the way up the chain of command if teachers are to feel supported in their judgements.  If children got 100 per cent in every test they took, we would want the tests to be harder.  So why do we expect them never to get things wrong in their daily interactions with the world around them?  Schools need to be clear and up-front about their approach, as the charity PLAYLINK argues in its helpful booklet Play at School (available from

But don’t schools have enough on their plate already, without being asked to oversee the development of their pupils’ resilience and responsibility?  Isn’t that a job for parents?  This observation is half-right. It is right in that the best classroom for learning about everyday life is indisputably the real world.  It is wrong in that the real world extends beyond both home and school.  So parents should not carry the whole responsibility for fostering independence, any more than schools should. 

Some initiatives in education – in PHSE, emotional literacy, and now SEAL – in effect ask schools to compensate for experiential deficits elsewhere in children’s lives.  How far does this have to go before we realise that we can no longer keep on treating the symptoms, and have to address the underlying cause: the shrinking horizons of childhood? 

The moral is clear:  we need to build neighbourhoods and communities in which children can learn, grow and adapt through their own self-directed experiences and everyday adventures – just as many of us did when we were young.  This is one job where politicians have to take the lead.

Anyone who has visited the Netherlands, Germany or Scandinavia will know that these nations have succeeded in creating settlements where children have a great deal of freedom, even in big cities.    It is no coincidence that they were at the top of the ‘league table’ of child well-being published by UNICEF earlier this year, while the UK languished at the bottom. They have managed to embrace a philosophy of resilience, and they have succeeded in creating child-friendly communities.

When I was visiting a public playground in Sweden last year, the children from the primary school next door poured out of their classrooms at break time and into all the surrounding green spaces. Some went across to the play area, while others found secret dens and hideaways in the bushes.  One or two went straight to the nearest big tree and started climbing up.  All the while the staff were keeping a weather eye out, but letting the children take the lead.  Children, parents, teachers, local and central government were clearly all comfortable with the idea that freedom, challenge, and even a little danger were no bad thing.  It was a sight that my old head teacher would rightly have approved of.

On the soap box

What excellent sense this article makes. It could be viewed as highly controversial. Our current culture makes it very difficult to raise some of these issues without bringing wrath upon yourself. The innocence of childhood is something we love to hold on to – an image that everything can be good and was at one time. And yet reality says this is not the case. This is one of the reasons we recoil with such horror at crimes committed by children. On one level we are overprotecting our children. By many  it is considered good parenting to overprotect. In fact we might begin to argue the opposite. It is time we all began to let our children loose a little and worry less about the fear of being blamed.