Children and society

Jody at Raising WEG has a great post about the relationship between children and society as a whole (sparked by a storm in a coffee cup in Chicago).

It prompted me to try to find some research I’d read a while back about cultural differences in society’s attitude to children. I didn’t find it (except a few tantalising comments in the study I did find) but the thrust of it was that German children have more freedom to roam their neighbourhoods and the public transport systems than equivalent anglo (Australian or UK) children. The price they pay for that freedom is that any adult feels quite justified in telling them off if they are doing something anti-social, and they pay attention.

But the flipside of that is that the adults around are generally looking out for the children; so parents can feel a bit safer that the major stranger danger is some annoying old biddy telling the child what to do, rather than some terrible pedophile abducting them never to be seen again.

While looking for it, I found a an interesting article referenced in the Sydney Morning Herald today – a study about what makes a child friendly city, in particular, the link between good public transport and child friendly cities. A quote:

“Two important reasons for the restriction by parents of their children’s independent travel, particularly as pedestrians and cyclists, are traffic danger and stranger danger. Yet there may be an important link between traffic and fears of assault and molestation in residential streets.

As traffic levels increase, more and more people (adults as well as children) cease to use the streets as pedestrians. This is partly a response to traffic danger, but also a response to the loss of local shops and services, and hence greater reliance on the motor vehicle for access to these shops, schools and even playgrounds. Eventually, residential streets are perceived as being deserted, lonely and hence dangerous places for children, in terms of the fear of assault and

When people do leave their private homes, they do so behind the closed doors of their private motor vehicles. Thus there are few adults around on the streets to provide surveillance and support for children. In particular, there are few adults who know their neighbours’ children and can look out for them. In contrast, if traffic levels are low enough to allow streets to be used for walking, cycling, social interaction and playing (all of which are important activities for children) it can be argued that potentially at least, streets become reinvigorated with supportive community life.”

This quote really sums up for me the gradual reduction in neighbourliness we’ve had over the past 30 years. Reading it makes me believe that the issue hasn’t been the change in the proportion of stay at home parents (that’s part of it, but only part) but that it’s our retreat, greatly assisted by the car, into the private sphere where we are only interested in our own lives, and not those of our neighbours, or our neighbours children.

So we end up with the situation that instead of engaging with the naughty child who is creating havoc in the coffee shop, and diverting them (as best we can) from inappropriate games in the middle of the coffee queue, we self-righteously ignore them and talk later to our friends about how bad that child’s parents were.

  2 comments for “Children and society

  1. August 18, 2006 at 10:03 pm

    I know I’m responding REALLY LATE to this, but this post just appeared in the WordPress Tag Surfer. I’m a South African living in Germany, so I can respond as an outsider in a culture that you talk about. Children do have amazing freedom here. In my home country, children are driven around by their parents until they are 18 and old enough to drive themselves. This is a security issue as well as a lack of adequate public transport. Here, however, kids walk to school from the age of six, sometimes earlier. Because everyone walks or cycles everywhere in my small town, but also in the rest of Germany, people get to know each other. My neighbours know what’s happening in my home almost before I do. This means my kids are watched – in the garden, on the street. It’s a nosiness that grates me, but for the reasons you point out, I am learning to welcome.

  2. August 19, 2006 at 6:48 pm

    I’ve only just moved to wordpress (from blogger) so thanks for commenting! Its interesting to hear that it is really true about Germany.

    Here in Australia, children used to walk to school (from six ish) but it happens less and less these days, so we’re moving more and more to a car culture.

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