Rearing Generation Safe Space

Sunday 29 October, 17:3018:45, Frobisher 4-6Contemporary Controversies

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In modern times, childhood is seen as a distinct period in our lives when we are nurtured, educated and given protection from the vagaries of adult life. The role of adults has been to help guide children towards adulthood. That means striking the right balance between, on the one hand, protecting children and young people from risks and the harsher side of life, and, on the other hand, exposing them to some of life’s challenges so that they can start assuming more responsibility for their lives and learn from difficulties and set-backs.

In recent years, the balance has shifted away from helping children to grow, mature and learn from challenges towards protecting them from any possible harm – whether emotional or physical. In August this year, the chief inspector of schools, Amanda Spielman, warned that ‘trying to insulate your pupils from every bump, germ or bruise will short-change pupils’ and will limit their chance to develop ‘resilience and grit’. Modern mollycoddling, it is pointed out, means that pupils have been prevented from engaging in activities such as leapfrog, marbles and conkers. Last year, a headmistress in Dundee suggested changing the colour of her school’s red uniform because ‘some research indicates that it can increase heart and breathing rates’, while there was a national campaign to ban tackling in school rugby matches due to the perils of this ‘high-impact collision sport’.

There are also concerns that today we rear children to perceive the world as an endlessly scary place. Many NGOs and charities, in particular, in their attempts to warn children of the potential threats they face, can seem to create an atmosphere of panic, such as relabeling what we used to call puppy fat as childhood obesity that will lead to premature death, or those sugary drinks the young love to swig are now described as ‘kids’ crack cocaine’.

This preoccupation with protecting the younger generations does not end when they become young adults. It could be argued that university students are no longer expected to behave, or be treated, as adults. Many students’ unions provide ‘safe spaces’ where students are ‘free from emotional harm and offence’ and cosseted in ‘an accessible environment in which every student feels comfortable, safe and able to get involved in all aspects of the organisation free from intimidation or judgement’. The University of Bristol is just one university that provides a puppy room to ‘aid relaxation and calmness’ for stressed students as the respite from the stresses and strains of revision. The University of Leicester students’ union was accused of infantalising young adults when it organised ‘bubble wrap stations’ where students can relax by popping the packaging as a way of relieving pre-exam nerves.

Unsurprisingly, there has been a backlash against such apparent reluctance to confront grown-up challenges and exhibit resilience in the face of the vicissitudes of everyday life. The derogatory term ‘snowflake’ is often used to describe a generation preoccupied with protecting themselves from hurt feelings and ‘offensive’ ideas. To quote novelist Bret Easton Ellis: ‘Oh, little snowflakes, when did you all become grandmothers and society matrons, clutching your pearls in horror at someone who has an opinion about something, a way of expressing themselves that’s not the mirror image of yours, you snivelling little weak-ass narcissists?’ But regardless of boomer disdain at safe-spacers, there are now genuine concerns that Millennials face unprecedented problems, and that institutions have a duty of care protect the young.

Is this shift towards more and more protection for the good? As children and young people are more vulnerable than adults, should we not be doing our utmost to keep them safe from any possible harm? Or is society holding children and young people back by wrapping them in cotton wool – from infancy to young adulthood? Could we be raising a generation ill-prepared to face adult responsibilities and negotiate life’s many challenges?