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Children, Risk and Reality

08/02/2010

Children and Risk

Each year, there are 1400 deaths among children aged 0-14 in the UK. Among very young children, this is accounted for almost totally by infections and disease. As age increases,  this diminishes and the proportion of childhood mortality attributable to avoidable injuries rises markedly, so that, for the 15-19 year old age group, 45% of all deaths are accidentally caused.

As anyone with teenagers will recognise, alongside moodiness and conflict with parents, risk taking is part of adolescence. Our role as parents is to mediate and moderate that risk, so that our kids survive the experience.

Increasingly, we live in a very risk averse culture, but we need to experience risks. It is how we learn to negotiate risks in adult life. Without childhood risk, we cannot judge risk safely as an adult just as without gardens, parks & fields, we don’t build up our immune system. Reasonable risk is the grit in the system that gives us our pearls.

Childhood at Risk

However, as we move to protect and prolong childhood, we degrade  and devalue it. ‘Staying on’ in education, no longer means until 15 or 16, increasingly, we are expecting our children to continue in education or training until they are 18 or 21. As we prolong our children’s dependence, we infantilise them at the same time as blaming them for not being more adult.

As childhood becomes longer and more full of material ‘things’, it is emptier of spontaneous creative play and informal outdoor experiences. Where once scarlet fever, influenza and TB cause loss and suffering, children now mourn the loss of the stable family: bereaved of their fathers with little understanding of the long term impacts of such trauma.

Children as Risk

As we get older and less nimble, we are less able to stand up for ourselves. We are threatened by louder, more energetic, testosterone fuelled teenagers. This is a real problem for many people, especially older men. Backed into corners – these are negotiations of strength and power. This is normal animal behaviour: interesting to observe as an outsider and infuriating when it is your concern. it is occasionally irritating but not a national risk.

Children at Risk

We need to differentiate between the headline grabbing sensational problems and those that ordinary children are most likely to encounter. So, what are the current risks to our children as adolescents & teenagers?

The current media demons are paedophiles, gang violence, drugs, knives and guns. The reality is much more banal. The chances of encountering any of this sensational top six are vanishingly small.

The reality? Children are going to be harmed by accidents in the home (slips and trips), cars & vehicles (including riding bicycles without lights or helmets) and other sports and active lifestyle injuries. Visit A&E on a Saturday afternoon and count the number of sports and play injuries waiting to be seen.

You might argue that I am not comparing like with like and you would be right. So few children know anything about guns that data collection across the school age population falls largely into the recording of fantasy stories. Those risks exist and, for those unfortunate enough to face them, they so immediate and dramatic that they occupy a research area of their own.

What is more pertinent to the majority of children is that we don’t pay enough attention to risks that are distant or diffuse… Huge number of children are obese. 1 in 5 of all 15 year old girls still smoke cigarettes. The numbers of girls exercising regularly has continued to fall.

Girls are now catching up with boys in their average weekly alcohol consumption. Under-age drinkers’ (11-14) alcohol intake has nearly tripled since 1990. In some part of the UK, boys drink the equivalent of three bottle of wine a week and girls are not far behind. Drinking large quantities of strong alcohol damages the developing adolescent brain. Befuddled teenagers too easily become pregnant schoolgirls and, if they continue drinking, damage the next generation in utero.  And so it goes on. 13,000 children (11-14) a year are admitted to hospital for alcohol related conditions. Some are as young as 8 years old.

Our failure effectively to deal with these issues leaves us with the prospect of major public health policy and resourcing problems in the future. Politicians seem unable or unwilling to act to intervene effectively to limit the sale of alcohol on the High Street or police the access to under-age drinkers.

As we face a general election, it is essential that any incoming government changes the laws licensing the sale of alcohol in shops and off-licenses and substantially re-thinks the pricing structure for alcoholic drinks in the United Kingdom.

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