In 2006 I published an essay - The problem with children today: The Liberal Democrats and children
- in a collection edited by Graham Watson.
The section on childhood obesity seems relevant today.
The problem and the conventional solutions
One topical area of concern about children is obesity, and it provides a convenient way into the debate about the travails of childhood in Britain today.
… even after adjustments for meals eaten outside the home, and for consumption of alcohol, soft drinks, and confectionery, average per capita energy intake seems to have declined by 20 per cent since 1970.
We see sport as crucial to the nation’s health and well-being. With child obesity trebling in the past decade, it is time the Department of Health took a far greater role in promoting sport and active living.
Here’s the truth – children don’t want to play sport on badly-drained 1950s scraps of land. They want showers, fences and floodlights. They want quality facilities.
Research suggests that in 20 years the ‘home habitat’ of a typical eight-year-old – the area that a child can travel around on their own – has shrunk by nearly 90 per cent.
The brief of community support officers is so narrowly focused on public order that they are always likely to come into conflict with venturesome children; besides, that order is best seen as a by-product of people going about their ordinary business rather than the result of enforcement action by the authorities. Perhaps the next Lib Dem London Mayoral candidate should campaign for a new generation of Routemaster buses and promise to employ conductors on them.
Earlier generations of parents were content to let their children negotiate the outside world armed only with warnings about not accepting lifts or sweets from strangers, whereas today the danger seems so extreme to many that they prefer not to let their children out at all.
It is tempting to call for more child-only spaces and more vetting but the danger is that, in taking steps to meet the supposed dangers to children, the authorities will merely confirm to parents that those dangers are real and convince them of the rightness of their decision to limit their children’s freedom.
One can see such a process at work in an attempted solution like the ‘walking bus’. Under such schemes, children are walked to school in a group under the supervision of volunteer adult escorts. They can join the crocodile only at certain points, and at the end of the school day the bus drops them off at the same stops, where they are collected by their parents. The trouble with such schemes is that they give parents the message that the outside world is so dangerous that it is hard to blame them for deciding to drive their children to school instead.