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Reclaiming Childhood: Freedom and Play in an Age of Fear

reviewed by Karen Sternheimer - July 31, 2009

coverTitle: Reclaiming Childhood: Freedom and Play in an Age of Fear
Author(s): Helene Guldberg
Publisher: Routledge, New York
ISBN: 0415477239, Pages: 206, Year: 2009
Search for book at Amazon.com

In 2003, a thirteen-year-old Arizona girl was strip-searched by school authorities who suspected that she was hiding ibuprofen in her underwear. The girl was an exemplary student by all accounts, but was nonetheless under suspicion after a peer accused her of sharing pills. In this case, the fear that she might have drugs—a potent symbol of youthful danger—outweighed all other school behavior. The U.S. Supreme Court later ruled this search unconstitutional.

While this example might be unique in its severity, scenarios like this play out regularly under the guise of protecting children, both from themselves and one another. Schools, day care centers, and millions of families act on the fear that children and childhood itself are under siege, threatened by the dangers of the world around them in ways never seen before. New rules and laws seek to enhance children’s safety: teachers are told to minimize any physical contact with even their youngest charges to avoid the appearance of impropriety, and older students face steeper penalties in school under so-called “zero tolerance” laws.

But could all of this enhanced “protection” be harmful to children?

Helene Guldberg, author of Reclaiming Childhood: Freedom and Play in an Age of Fear argues that overprotective adults have hampered children’s development. She carefully examines many common fears surrounding children in the United Kingdom and United States, including bullying, emotional stress, and children’s knowledge about sex and technology. She concludes that children are now hostage to adult fear. Using a developmental perspective of childhood throughout the book, Guldberg argues that the tendency to try and “bubble wrap” children impairs healthy development into adulthood.

Guldberg begins by examining what she regards to be a “childish panic” about young people today, which has led to attempts to overprotect and micromanage their lives. This adult anxiety, she argues, discourages any sort of risk taking, renders children’s relationships with one another problematic and interferes with the developmental benefits of play.

“Children are tacitly encouraged to look upon their peers with trepidation and suspicion,” she concludes, adding that, “As more and more forms of behavior are labeled ‘bullying’ more and more children become labeled as ‘bullies’ or ‘victims’” (p. 93). She rightly notes that children’s teasing has been conflated with the more sinister sounding bullying, making it seem as though interactions between children can damage many of them permanently. Instead, Guldberg asks readers to put teasing into perspective, acknowledging that while some children are subject to repeated taunts of peers, most children are learning to negotiate relationships with their peers and resolve conflicts on their own.

Later chapters directly address the roles of teachers, parents, and other adults in this dynamic. Titled “Let Parents be Parents,” “Let Teachers be Teachers,” and “Let Strangers be Friends,” these sections speak directly to parents, educators, and administrators whose decisions are often made in reaction to the anxieties that swirl around children today.

By contrast, she argues that fear mongers view children’s experiences of the past as idyllic, romanticized reflections based in nostalgia rather than fact. When imagining a world free from the Internet and video games, critics often overlook other more troubling realities of childhood’s past: hard labor, starvation, disease, and sometimes premature death.  

Reclaiming Childhood is most persuasive in demonstrating that children are far safer today than we are often led to believe. In contrast to polemics about childhood in crisis, whose authors mostly offer only anecdotal evidence, Guldberg provides compelling data to support her points. For instance, she includes statistics on child pedestrian fatalities in the United Kingdom to demonstrate that children are safer in public than parental anxieties suggest. Child pedestrian fatalities fell by 80 percent between 1985 and 2003, while at the same time children traveled shorter distances by foot or bicycle. She notes that pedestrian fatality rates have been creeping up since, perhaps “the result of children having been prevented from becoming ‘street-wise’” (p. 68).

She also challenges the idea that kids today grow up isolated from busy parents; the opening chapter provides data indicating that children spend more time on average with parents now than in 1975 (p. 16). And despite claims that contemporary life is uniformly too stressful for teens, Guldberg provides data which indicates that British teens are not more depressed than in the past despite common complaints that teens today are more “stressed and depressed” (p. 20).

One result of this culture of fear, she concludes, is insecure parents:

The widespread idea that parents must always seek expert advice or risk raising “damaged” children who will then do damage to society—an idea continually promoted by government officials, television gurus and numerous newspaper and magazine articles—only contributes to feelings of uncertainty among parents. (p. 143)

Guldberg cites examples of policies in the U.K. designed to teach parenting skills, including “nursery rhyme intervention” (p. 141).

British teachers are especially under the microscope, Guldberg contends, with government mandates such as a policy with 69 learning goals for young children, including guidelines that by age one infants should be able to “communicate through ‘crying, gurgling, babbling and squealing’” (p. 148). Other British policies expect teachers to create lessons with the goal of promoting emotional development and happy kids (p. 153). Children would be measured against national standards to see if they “perform” up to the level of their peers in these tasks. What happens if they do not is unclear, Guldberg observes.

Guldberg’s main point is a persuasive one, that many policy makers and so-called childhood experts have lost all common sense where children are concerned. But her suggestion to “give children their childhood back,” (p. 180) requires some unpacking. This phrase, repeated in various forms throughout the book, seems to presume a western, middle-class, white experience of childhood. That “children need free time to play [and] have fun” (p. 107) seems obvious from this perspective, but also reflects a presentist, western notion of childhood. At times the use of examples from her own less constrained childhood experiences in Norway reflect the same nostalgia for a lost past that she critiques at the outset.

While assessing the rationale behind youth-phobia, she hypothesizes that a “disdain for affluence” (pp. 7-8) of our contemporary age could be driving anxieties about children. The book would benefit from some elaboration on this and other possible causes of the fear that pervades public discourse on children. It is also important to note that the consequences of such fears are significantly worse for low-income kids of color, who are more likely to be demonized and subject to increased surveillance by law enforcement. Guldberg alludes to this, but could develop this issue more in her analysis. Youth phobia translates into more concern for affluent kids and often greater mistrust of the poor.

In sum, this book is a valuable primer in critical thinking about taken-for-granted assumptions regarding many children’s experiences today. It is a highly readable synthesis of a variety of ideas and sources, and contains important information for those who work with children and create the policies which shape their lives.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 31, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15732, Date Accessed: 5/20/2022 1:11:03 AM

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About the Author
  • Karen Sternheimer
    University of Southern California
    E-mail Author
    KAREN STERNHEIMER is Associate Professor (teaching) of Sociology at the University of Southern California. Her research focuses on fears surrounding both youth and popular culture, and she is currently conducting a comparative historical study of American celebrity culture. She is the author of Kids These Days: Facts and Fictions about Today’s Youth (Rowman & Littlefield, 2006), and most recently, Connecting Social Problems and Popular Culture: Why Media is not the Answer (Westview, 2009). She blogs at www.everydaysociologyblog.com.
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