Adult fears cramp kids

DOWN AND DIRTY: Kids need to have free time and the chance to get scrapes.
DAVID WHITE/Fairfax NZ
DOWN AND DIRTY: Kids need to have free time and the chance to get scrapes.

"People capture me, or steal me," one child says.

Another says he is frightened to leave his parent's side. "I feel really safe and like nothing's going to happen with my mum next to me."

These responses, and many others like them, come from a Massey University study that delved into what it is like to be a modern child.

NO TO COTTON WOOL: Mark Bracey wants to encourage his children to take chances.
LAWRENCE SMITH/Fairfax NZ
NO TO COTTON WOOL: Mark Bracey wants to encourage his children to take chances.

The study found attachment-parenting and a reluctance by mums and dads to leave children alone were making their offspring fearful and anxious.

Researchers tracked the movements of 253 Auckland children, finding they seldom ventured beyond school, home and friends' houses.

Some youngsters never left their front gate without adult supervision.

In the study, children were asked about their adventures. For many the answer was a video game.

Massey University professor Karen Witten says good parenting has come to be seen as keeping watch over children. Parents liked to know their children were in supervised care because of the reassurance they were being monitored.

Around 60 per cent of children are now driven to school by their parents, up from just a third in 1990.

"This isn't necessarily in the child's best interests, as children need to be left alone from time to time for their social, physical and brain development," Witten says.

"Kids do different things when they're out on their own. When they meander on a walk home they play games, and are much more physical en route."

Witten says parents in the study spoke of the world being more dangerous, with faster cars on the road, drunks, dangerous dogs, and "shady" characters in the street.

Children picked up on those grown-up fears.

"They're embodying this notion of fear and they can't be alone because their entire life they've been picked up and dropped off," Witten says.

"They've been living within this bubble wrap all their lives, so they think that is what's safe."

Parents' fears do not appear to be backed by statistics.

The Ministry of Health's national mortality statistics show the rate of children dying or being seriously injured in accidents and motor vehicle crashes has remained steady or fallen over the past decade. And child protection agency Child Matters says child abduction remains extremely uncommon.

Children are most at risk of abuse by someone in their home, the agency says.

Grant Schofield, AUT University professor of public health, says the pressure to pay the mortgage meant two-parent working families must shuttle their children from school to supervised care.

It was economics that determined that, not parenting style.

When children were home, parents wanted to spend precious time with their children, so free play was sacrificed. "But it's unsupervised playtime that is crucial in the development of children's ability to manage risk and control emotion."

Friends, an organisation which deals with at-risk youngsters, says children are increasingly showing signs of anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and suicidal thoughts. A total of 31 people aged 10-14 committed suicide between July 2007 and July 2013.

Spokeswoman Jenny Bell said busy schedules, bad diets, increased screen time and a lack of exercise all had an impact.

"Children coming through these days are different in that they do not seem to have the resilience to cope with life's ups and downs and hence the increase in anxiety. There are a lot of factors at play; it's definitely a growing phenomenon."

Auckland father Mark Bracey is part of a parents' movement fighting against the "cotton wool" parenting style.

"A sense of freedom and independence has been lost," Bracey says.

"It's that feeling to be independent and play. I went to school every day on a bicycle. Everything has changed. The zone of play has shrunk."

"You see life very differently from a windscreen of a car," he says.

"I'm fearful we're going to have two or three generations who are missing out on activity and experience of risk-taking. They're sitting at home or the classroom."

The Bracey family has just one car and relies heavily on bikes and public transport.

The children walk to school. Daughter Sena, 15, says she doesn't feel scared biking to sports practice.

"It gives me a sense of independence. When I go out I feel trusted and more like an adult."

Sena's brother Rei, 17, said some of his best childhood memories were kicking a football around with neighbourhood children.

"We were not told what to do. There was no guidance. There was a sense of risk. That made it more exciting."

WHO REALLY NEEDS ANGER MANAGEENT?

Primary school-aged children are taking anger management courses in increasing numbers but it is their parents who need to learn to deal with anger, a counsellor says.

At a course in Auckland, children aged five to 11 are taught, through art therapy and drama, how to express their feelings and deal with suppressed anger, counsellor Noa Gross said.

She has run three courses in the past year and all have been full.

"The issue is generally not the children. The majority of the time it is their parents, especially with primary-aged children, but sometimes parents don't see it that way and they think a course for their children will help."

Rebecca Daly-Peoples, a clinical psychologist specialising in childhood development, said children learnt to deal with anger by observing their parents, or from media. "If they watch a lot of Ben 10 they probably think that dealing with anger is about shooting people with big guns."

Daly-Peoples said society was becoming more violent so children needed more anger-management skills.

"There is increasing levels of stress in our society and people dealing with more and stress can lead to anger and conflict."

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