“Until relatively recently, pedophiles had fairly easy access to children, who were left largely unattended by parents. During the last two decades of the twentieth century, growing attention to the phenomenon has made it more difficult for pedophiles to act out their sexual urges.“
Ning De Coninck-Smith
Maybe you have to be over a certain age to have noticed that things have changed, how one rarely ever sees children outside of the patrolled spaces of the home, school and the fast-food restaurant.
Decades ago, as a child, I’d look forwards to the school holidays, and escaping the classroom for the outdoors and a near-eternity of time and freedom.
My friends would call round and we’d disappear till the next meal time, playing and exploring for whole afternoons and evenings. Sometimes we’d knock on someone’s door and ask for a drink of water. We were never refused. Sometimes they even invited us in, and we’d have lemonade and biscuits at the kitchen table, chatting to the householder.
Our parents were by no means ‘negligent’ in allowing us so much freedom – this was just what little boys did.
As a young adult at university I’d still eagerly await the easy freedom of the long holidays. However, by then an additional reason imbued my anticipation: the streets, parks, the swimming pool and local bathing-hole would be full of children.
There was nothing ‘predatory’ in this: I just loved seeing happy kids playing and having fun.
And I’d make the occasional short-lived friendship – some lone child would tag along with me, curious about what I was doing, and we’d spend a while talking and joking…
Or at the pool some little girl or boy, noticing a lonely, friendly-looking stranger, would teasingly splash me and we’d spend the next half hour playing together.
I still anticipate the school holidays. But it now feels like a habit that has outlived its relevance: Autumn comes and I look back, feeling vaguely dissatisfied and disappointed. The Summer has, once again, fallen short of my hopes – how few children I have even seen, let alone spoken to or connected with. And how many bored parents engrossed in and talking at their mobile phones…
It was not always so.
A Child’s place is in the home
What follows is a list of factors which appear to have caused this ‘child-flight’, this disappearance of children from our public spaces, over roughly the last half century – a period over which the process has accelerated to virtual completion.
The domestication and miniaturisation of facilities and resources
Advances in technology and increasing affluence have meant that a host of facilities and resources which, for most of mankind’s history, were communally shared, have been miniaturised and made affordable to the great majority of households.
Arguably, whenever there is a choice between sharing a facility or owning a miniaturised and privatised version of it– most people take latter option.
The following are examples of such changes. They all reduce the need for both children and adults to venture into public spaces (the reduced presence of parents in the community, of course, entails the reduced presence of their children):
- television has replaced theatre, cinema, and attendance at live events;
- the telephone has replaced pubs, cafés, and other social meeting places;
- radio, CDs &c have replaced live music;
- the washing machine has replaced the launderette;
- the private garden has replaced the municipal park;
- fridges and freezers mean that a weekly trip to the out-of-town hyper-market has replaced the daily trip to the local shop or market for fresh food;
- computers and the internet are replacing many things, including local shops, supermarkets and libraries.
The family car
Arguably, the ‘domesticated facility’ that has most contributed to ‘child-flight’ is the car.
Extreme mobility (of individuals, families and resources) is one of the prerequisites of a fast-changing, growth-dependent economy such as capitalism. The family car answers this need and has played a major role in the dispersal of the local, the depopulation of urban and suburban public spaces, and the isolation of the nuclear family. It has eliminated the need for children (and adults) to walk, cycle in their geographical locality or use public transport, meaning that they do not develop an intimate knowledge of their neighbourhood or a sense of belonging, nor develop the skills and knowledge necessary for negotiating and making best use of their locality.
This means that those facilities which children do use are often situated far outside their geographical community: schools have wider catchment areas, so that children of school age have fewer local friends and are dependent on parents for their social lives; ‘family friendly’ leisure facilities (malls, multiplexes, amusement parks, leisure centres, fast-food restaurants) are increasingly found out of town, requiring the car to get there.
This means that children’s social and leisure activities are generally conducted in the presence of parents – depriving children of an independent, unsupervised social life.
Large areas of public space have been converted into roads. Public spaces (such as village greens and squares) have been given over to parking, both in town centres. The sides of suburban streets, and often the pavement too, are now used for parking cars, which creates major safety risks for children. The dominance of traffic constitute makes the world outside the home ugly, unpleasant, noisy, unhealthy and dangerous.
There are many positive feedback loops associated with the de-childing of public spaces. The ‘School Run Paradox’ is a good example: parents choosing to drive their children to school because the traffic chaos created by the parents dropping their children off at school by car makes walking to school too dangerous, thereby exacerbating the problem.
The n̶u̶c̶l̶e̶a̶r̶ isolated family
A rapidly changing job market means that families have to be more mobile. This is easier if the family unit is ‘nuclear‘ rather than ‘extended‘. The relatives that make up the extended family (grandparents, uncles and aunts, cousins…) are likely to be dispersed and live far away.
Frequent house moves and ‘the domestication of facilities’ means that there is little desire and few reasons for interacting with neighbours. This creates neighbourhoods where there is little sense of community and results in a lack of ‘safe’ adults outside the home, making the world outside the home feel scarier.
The changing nature of children’s play
The working-class child of fifty years ago lived in a more crowded environment – more siblings and smaller houses. Their play consequently had to take place not in the home, but in the street or other communal areas. Consequently they were more likely to come into contact with all sorts and a greater number of children, and their choice of friends was not guided by the parents, since all children play on communal areas. The play of the working-class child was not generally supervised by adults.
Another feature of the traditional working-class family was that older children would take their younger siblings out into the streets to play, the younger sibling sometimes being a baby or a toddler. The older sibling would introduce the child into the community of local children and act as a role-model of how to negotiate public space and how to play.
Nowadays parental fears have meant that this role has mostly died out.
Middle-class children fifty years ago lived in more spacious homes, with a garden and maybe their own bedroom. Consequently they had no need to play in the street.
Today most families living in the UK and the USA enjoy levels of housing, domestic facilities, disposable income and car-ownership that would have qualified as ‘middle-class’ fifty years ago.
Outdoor play has been replaced by indoor activities dependent on expensive, heavily marketed and ever-developing technologies, which pressure children and parents to constantly ‘update’. These are usually screen-based activities and are often passive and operate within parameters set by the technology and the game’s creators.
The Nintendo Wii perfectly embodies how an adult-regulated, impoverished, indoor version of play is replacing the child-led, open-ended, chaotic play that has been normal for probably all of human history.
The appeal of public spaces such as playing fields, playgrounds, waste grounds, woods etc has diminished, whilst that of more organised, heavily-marketed, commercial attractions (such as shopping malls, multiplexes, amusement parks and leisure centres – all requiring a car to access) has increased.
Children’s leisure is a most lucrative market. Adverts, product-placement and other marketing strategies relentlessly promote leisure activities which involve high consumption and spending.
One of the most powerful concepts in winning young minds is that of ‘cool’.
‘Cool’ generally describes activities focused around acts of consumption, and a short-term gratification that is purchasable (e.g. computer games, social media, eating at MacDonalds, fashion and make-up) rather than something that has to be achieved .
Opposed to this is the ‘geeky’ or ‘uncool’ which generally applies to activities that are more dependent on skill, knowledge and practice (e.g. playing an instrument, bird-watching, reading, ballet, gardening, model-making, scouting) rather than consumption.
This change in the nature of play means that the traditions of free, independent and unstructured play, which parents and grandparents engaged in, are not passed on. Consequently many children don’t know how to make the most of being outdoors and independent. Staying indoors and engaging in adult-organised play becomes the default option.
This makes for children who are less healthy and active, and who feel handicapped when it comes to outdoor activities.
work and education
In the past fifty years there has been in the UK a steady increase in the school-leaving (15 in 1944 to effectively – 18 today). A basic qualification is no longer considered enough for anything other than the most basic jobs: higher qualification are essential for anyone wishing to ‘succeed’. In the UK almost 50% of students are today going on to higher education, as opposed to 3.4% in 1950.
This is nudging the effective limits of childhood ever upwards.
I suspect that recent concerns over ‘campus rape’ reflect an underlying sense that the age of consent is too low and should be harmonised with our current conception of the temporal boundaries of childhood.
There’s also been a sharp decline in the part-time jobs, such as the paper or the milk-round, which enable children to develop skills, knowledge and independence essential to being active participants in their geographical community, and to being citizens.
“Around 5,000 children under the age of 16 die or are seriously injured on Britain’ s roads each year. Nearly two in three road accidents happen when children are walking or playing”
Automobile Association (2003)
Parents (and consequently children) increasingly consider the world outside the home as a place filled with hazards and consequently are reluctant to allow their children to venture out of the home. Whilst many of these fears are illusory, one fear – that of traffic-related injuries, illnesses and deaths – does seem to be a valid one.
Equal, if not exceeding, the fear of traffic is the fear of paedophiles. Any paedophile reading this knows that this fear is illusory: it is not someone who likes and respects children, and who has spent a life-time coming to terms with the illegal and stigmatised status of their love, who is going to do something impulsive that would scare or hurt a child.
The consequences of this fear are well documented on sites such as the excellent freerangekids.com. The most obvious one is that of parents simply not allowing their children to venture into public spaces unsupervised. Another pernicious consequence is that children are taught a fear and suspicion of adults, especially men, and to see adults as ill-disposed towards children.
Moreover the nature of parents’ fear seems to have gone from that of the child being abducted or seduced to one of a paedophile simply being present in the vicinity of their child and noticing (not even ‘desiring’) them – the danger no longer seems to require an act or a crime.
The stigma associated with paedophiles is such that adults fear being mistaken for one. This has largely eliminated interactions between children and non-familial adults and created in many adults a reciprocal fear and suspicion of children, resulting in the reduced presence of men in children’s lives. The disappearance of male primary teachers is well documented. Another effect is that fathers are often viewed with suspicion when accompanying their children to the park or playground, or if they show sign’s of physical affection towards them in public.
The absence of children from public spaces makes those spaces feel less friendly and safe. the presence of children generally civilises places – think how football violence was addressed by making stadiums more child-friendly; likewise ‘family friendly’ pubs.
These fears are exacerbated by an increasingly risk-averse culture. The rise of the insurance industry and the consequent health-and-safety mind-set means that ‘any risk’ is ‘too much risk’, especially where children are concerned.
(I suspect that the Insurance Industry has an interest in making us afraid: also, if insurance is a kind of gambling, then maybe insurers have a vested interest in us misperceiving risk..?)
A final fear is that of the ‘Feral Urban Child’: public spaces have become so fear-ridden and fraught that any child, or group of children, who does venture into it unaccompanied by an adult is perceived as either being a victim of parental neglect or delinquent and up to no good.
I know that this essay may come across as a diatribe against the ‘modern world’, as rosy-tinted longing for the blue-remembered hills of my childhood. Maybe it is.
I don’t doubt that there will be those, more enamored of modernity than I, who will have a different take on this. Indeed there is a debate to be had as to whether the disappearance of children from public space is a price worth paying for the lifestyle and products this form of society has also delivered.
But one thing is clear to me: all aspects concerning the nature of a child’s early life are affected, determined even, by the economic system they are born into. I’ve focused here on one aspect of childhood, namely ‘where it takes place’, but a similar analysis is possible with respect to all aspects of childhood, not least ‘sexuality’.
Indeed the identity of the child as a sexual being is intrinsically linked to the question of ‘where the child belongs’: the nuclear family, the ‘home’, is an institution where incest taboos strongly prohibit all sexual relationships between members, other than between the parents. It is not a place for the uncomplicated or risk-free expression of child sexuality. A child entirely enclosed within the family has no soil within which its sexuality can take root.
I also acknowledge that to all but a tiny minority of people, a paedophile arguing for the increased presence of unaccompanied children in his community might read a bit like a burglar arguing for more people to leave their front doors unlocked.
But it’s not just those of us with a capacity to love genetically unrelated children who are adversely affected by their disappearance from the community. The whole of society is terribly impoverished by it, not least the children themselves.
If we are insensible to this is it because we value cars, television and consumer durables above our children? Have we too readily accepted the version of childhood which has been most insistently thrust at us? Are we, as a society, guilty of having sold off our children for the bread and circuses of the consumer lifestyle?