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Last Updated: Friday, 2 December 2005, 10:35 GMT
The problem with paranoid parents
A modern child's life is filled with unnecessary monitoring and mollycoddling from over-protective parents, says writer John O'Farrell, who sets out his opinion in the BBC Two series Backlash. Add your comments too.

Mother pushing a pram
Do parents try too hard?
The physics of parenthood have exploded.

Once the kids were satellites orbiting around the parents; now the centre of the universe is the child.

Mothers feel guilty leaving their children to watch television on their own, so sit down and watch Pingu beside them, wasting valuable time that could be far better spent sitting in the kitchen smoking and doing Su Doku puzzles.

Parents volunteer to go in and read in the classroom, when all they really want to do is spy on the teachers and be with their precious ones during school hours as well.

When I was a child my parents did not surrender their dignity by wallowing around in ball pits.

They went to the pub and left me and my brother on our own fighting in the car.

Sitting in that pub car park taught me important lessons. I learnt what happens when you release the hand-brake on a hill. But of course I also used that time to read. I can still quote the AA Members handbook from 1968.

Lost confidence

Just as you see toddlers being restrained by those ludicrous safety reins, modern parents are wearing invisible reins that hold them back from doing what ought to come naturally.

John O'Farrell
I am in favour of children being bored
John O'Farrell
Manuals are consulted, diet fads are imposed, each scare story in the tabloids has parents changing the regime under which their kids are being brought up.

Parents have lost the confidence to trust themselves or others. Fear has become the dominant emotion - both the fear of something happening and fear of nothing happening to them; the terror that their children might be ordinary.

And so every second of the modern child's life is time-tabled and monitored.

Children are strapped into the back of 4x4s and whisked from this tutor to that, and if there are a few minutes of mucking about in the park, the play is under the constant supervision of the Meercat Mums.

So children are never bored, they never learn how to fill their own time, they never discover things for themselves.

I am in favour of children being bored. In fact I think we need a Boredom Tsar (I suggest my old geography teacher).

Learning responsibility

And although the children are in no danger of falling from the climbing frame (because both parents are underneath with their arms outstretched waiting to catch them) we have no idea what damage is being done inside.

Children in playground
Let children take risks, says O'Farrell
Children are being denied the chance to learn initiative and independence; they are not learning to take responsibility for their own actions.

In 30 years' time the prime minister will be saying: "Mum, can you do this for me?"

We should force ourselves to set our children free. They should walk to school on their own, go to the park with their mates and kick a ball about and climb trees that do not have rubber matting underneath.

The trouble is, we have made children so paranoid that if anyone suggested this to them, the kids would run a mile.

Or rather their parents would drive them.

John O'Farrell presents Backlash: Paranoid Parents, to be shown on BBC Two on Saturday, 3 December, 2005, at 1840 GMT.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Too right, I grew up in the 70s when every piece of play equipment was surrounded by a concrete apron and you had to be really really careful when you rode your bicycle down the slide.
Pete Nightingale, Reading UK

if the media didn't bombard us with images of our children growing up in an unsafe country then maybe parents would be less paranoid.
Nicola, Cardiff

I agree wholeheartedly! I had a wonderful childhood messing about in boats, swimming in the sea and falling from trees in Northern Ireland. Today's parents would have nightmares! My son was allowed freedom to amuse himself and had little interest in television. He is now an independent young man with a sense of responsibility. I now live in a small town in Canada where the children have the freedom I enjoyed to play in the creek and parks. However one does have to be concerned for children's safety nowadays - not from hurting themselves but by being at the mercy of paedophiles. So let your kids amuse themselves and develop normally but make them aware of the undesirables in society.
Kathleen Hancock, Pincher Creek. Alberta

That's too funny, my sister and I used to be stuck in the car letting off the handbrake whilst our parents went to the pub too. About once an hour we might get a packet of crisps and a bottle of coke.
Stewart, Florida

I can't but help wonder whether Mr. O'Farrell is a parent himself. Is it not the fault of the media that parents no longer allow their children out to play or walk to school? The news is filled with stories of children being molested, abducted and murdered. Regardless of whether the threat is greater these day than it used to be, the fact is that the "perceived threat" is much greater. I and hundreds of other children who attended our local school in England walked half a mile to school every day 20 years ago; but I wouldn't dream of letting my own son do the same - I am just not willing to take the risk that he will be attacked by a paedophile who has been let out into the community after a brief slap on the wrist by some narrow minded judge. I disagree, however, that children are denied the opportunity to learn initiative and independence. My own son spends many hours occupying himself and is allowed to decide for himself what he wants to do and play with but within a safe environment, such as the home or the back garden.
Sarah Palmer, Louisville, KY , USA

Bravo - at last proof that I not in alone in these views, what sweet relief. Thank you John.
Roger Jones, Buckingham, England

What can one say? John O'Farrell has said it all,yes,there are bad people out there but that has always been the case,Children must be allowed to become independent and street wise, or as John suggests they will finish up as cabbages.
Michael McIver, Hastings,E.Sussex

Perhaps the main reason for this is peer pressure. Parents don't want to be the one who's child is failing or hurt when not only can it be avoided, but no one else's child is hurt or failing. It is a competitive thing, and it starts with the amount of weight gained by your baby in the first year of life.
Catherine, Thousand Oaks, CA , USA

I love it, it's certainly true. I don't know if I'll be any better when I have kids myself though!
Amy, Canterbury

I agree with you and sometimes I feel a nervous wreck, years ago if I hurt myself it would be ok its fine go away know I feel like I should have been there she wouldn't have hurt herself what have I done I cant get anything done round house, where have we gone wrong. feel that if child hurts themselves to much ppl will take them away.
Sophie, Wales

Good grief.. the man gets it... Experience is learning, be it making mistakes, getting it right, falling, hurting, healing... About time we took to ruddy cotton wool off... Oh and for crying out loud, put that anti-bacterial spray away before none of us has an immune system left...
Martin, Sheffield

I totally agree. I have read stories of tribes in South America who let their toddlers play along side dangerous pits - and no-one ever falls in - the child's self-preservation instinct kicks in, and they learn better co-ordination and self-belief in the process. The more children are protected, the less they learn - this is fact. Put a child in a padded cell, nothing bad will happen but they will never learn. There needs to be a balance obviously but with in fear obsessed world the balance is too far over to the side of protection. The world has not become more dangerous in the last 20 years, the only change has been in our perceptions, driven by the fear-mongering tactics of the government and the media.
Dave Watts, Exeter

That's funny. Yesterday, two of my kids accidentally drove their big brother's remote controlled car into the swimming pool, thus learning about the relationship between water and electricity... My worry is that if kids don't learn about risk when they are young, they'll try it when they're in their 40's. We'll have a whole generation of parents ditching their established careers to become hang glider instructors and stunt extras, because it gives them a kick. Or worse still, drugs when they're 20, and never making 40.
Patrick, Auckland, NZ

Spot on. Oh by the way, is there a publication with the series so I can timetable the unsupervised periods, and guidebook to the places that they can play without restraint, safely?
Ross, Salisbury

I would be interested to know if Mr O'Farrell has any children of his own. As a new Dad of a 6 month old little girl, I find his attitude surprising. At this stage, it is important to keep an eye on children, particularly when they go quiet! Yes I am worried about what happens to my daughter but not to the extent I would stop her doing anything unless it was dangerous. I will be bringing up my daughter to be as independent as I am.
Stewart, Aberdeen, Scotland

I totally agree with John O'Farrell. As a teacher I see the results of too much mollycoddling - children with no sense of responsibility for their own actions. But it isn't just parents to blame - the media is one of the main contributors, stirring up a frenzy whenever something goes wrong and implying that these extreme circumstances are the norm. Our decision makers also play a part - local councils and national government. As school teachers, and parents, we are taught that it's easier (less paperwork) and 'safer' to keep children in school rather than taking them away on trips, yet all this does is increase children's' fear and inexperience of the world outside their classroom, living room or 4x4.
Jillian, Reading

I am a mom of 4 children all under the age of 6 with two of those being disabled. I myself feel that I am not a paranoid parent, my children have plenty of time on their own to do what they want to do eg: watch telly play in the back garden and what ever else a child do. I do however, go with them to the park as I feel they are not old enough to go alone and also the safety factors you often read about with children being taken from where they are playing. Also with two disabled two year olds who have cerebral palsy, they find it very difficult to do the thing that children can normally do at their age, so please don't label all parents as being paranoid as different parents have different situations. These are just my comments.
Fiona Sheldon, Birmingham West Midlands

The idea of kids walking to school on their own and running free in the park is a very appealing one but unfortunately in this day and age parents are afraid to let young kids out of their sight for fear of their lives from attack.
Mary Gilbert, Ireland

I couldn't agree more. It has been proven lots more kids get illnesses like asthma because parents use too many cleaning fluids these days. Children need to build up their immune systems by being exposed to germs, just as they need to be exposed to danger.
Beth, London UK

I can agree with some of what you say. But the world is a far more terrible place then it was while we were growing up. You can't trust anyone with your children. So to keep them safe I have become one of these parents, but I'm sorry for it. I'm sorry this world is so horrible that I had to become one of these parents. That my children can't explore on their own, or play outside alone. You never really know who your neighbours are do you?
Jeannine Tomala, New York, NY.

I agree with everything except the smoking in the kitchen bit. Smoking is bad enough - doing it in the kitchen is disgusting!
Penny, Oxford

Couldn't agree more. I spent many happy hours in A&E. You soon learn that acrophobia is normal, baseball bats hurt and swallowing pins can be harmful. It was character forming.
RobO, Canterbury, Kent

What a refreshing point of view! Having just become a father I can see both sides of this story, but my views largely agree with Mr O'Farrell's. I think the tendency of parents to molly-coddle their children and the 'child is always right' attitude has contributed significantly to crime levels and anti-social behaviour, not to mention the indiscipline in schools that is driving teachers from the profession.
Jeremy, Swavesey

O'Farrell is an anachronism. People do things differently because it isn't 1968 anymore. Things move on and change and people have to adapt. It's lunacy to think that you can bring your kids up in 2005 in the same way your parents did in the 60's and 70's anymore than people are still willing to drive around in Ford Cortina's or watch black and white TV. It's a different world, whether it's better or not is a debatable question, but you can't turn the clock back.
Tony , Derbyshire

John's right. You never see kids out playing, unless under strict supervision. I regularly walk in the fabulous woodlands in and around Sheffield. There should be kids climbing trees, making swings, building dens, playing at being explorers, out on their bikes. But you hardly see any kids, and when you do, they're just walking quietly on the paths with their mums and dads. It's tragic.
Ros, Sheffield, UK

Absolutely true. I have taught martial arts to university students for the last 18 years and you can see the trends. The students get less fit and more molly coddled every year. They have no posture/fitness and they're unable to stand up for themselves. When we were kids we played rough games in the fresh air. We swung over ropes over rivers, had fights in the play ground, got hurt but recovered afterwards. Today's teenagers want to sit down if they feel tired or get out of breath.
Nigel, London

The irony is that if it's true that many parents are following this trend, won't their children end up "ordinary" anyway by definition? The question in my mind is how the trend for pampering arose in the first place. I doubt that our fast-paced, litigious society will help to stop it.
Paul D, Bristol, UK

I totally agree. I used to fall out of trees only to no fiend no parent waiting at the bottom and this has done me no harm. My son will be left to his own doings as and when so I couldn't agree more with the comments raised. I look forward to the programme.
John Need, Edinburgh

Finally, someone thinking with a level head! It seems that we're living in a time when parents are no longer raising children - they're raising trophies!
Christine Locket, Los Angeles, CA (Ex-Pat)

I am mother to 2 children, yes! I am a paranoid mother, I try not to be, but with the amount of child abuse, murders, abductions, stabbings, shootings that are so prevalent in our society today I think I have every right to be.. So I will continue to drive my children to School everyday and collect them, I will go in the ball pit with them, and keep my eye on them in the park. at least I know where they are, and who they are with.
Sarah Baller, Gloucestershire

Phew! Feel much better for reading this. Just what I needed to hear. Thank you.
Claire Suenaga, Fukuoka, Japan

I totally agree with John O'Farrell our children are missing out on a really important part of their development by being smothered by Parents who won't allow them to grow. I think that this shows in the behaviour we see in youngsters at 13/14 when they are finally allowed out on their own but don't know how to behave because they have never done it before. Boredom is good, you can only measure how good a time you are having unless you have experienced the opposite.
Ann McCaffrey, Bexleyheath

I have to say I agree. I try to let go of the reins with my children but you often get sideways glances from other parents, who think you are being negligent. I want my children to have at least a taste of the freedom I enjoyed.
Michelle, Bishop's Stortford

I used to work at a large university here in the States. We had a term for mothers (and it was usually mothers) who did everything for their children: helicopter moms. They would call to check on the progress of their legal age child. Since we couldn't release any information over the phone, they were often frustrated. Be aware, helicopter moms do not like to be thwarted. They often have to hear from several people that certain types of information, like how many lessons completed and the grades of such, cannot be given over the phone.
Marion, Georgia, USA

O'Farrell obviously fell out of a tree and onto his head at a young age.
peter adams, Chipping Sodbury, Bristol

I loved this article because I totally agree! We do need to "let our kids go" - not hold them so tight that we squeeze the life out of them! Well done John for sharing such an honest viewpoint with us, I will be watching the show!
Theresa, Stevenage

Couldn't agree more!
Sam Roberts, Walsall

What ages are the author's children and how is this strategy working out for them?
Rory , Dublin

My sentiments exactly. While most of the new parents I know seem to keep their left-to-fend-for-themselves childhood in mind when bringing up their own children, there appears to be peer-pressure in behaving like this common, paranoid fashion in public otherwise you run the risk of being labelled as an unloving, bad parent. This really needs to stop! This is where we need the older generation to remind us how children should really be brought up.
Priyanka, Los Angeles, CA

Times change and so do attitudes. Since 1900 the average number of Children has halved, in 1900 1 in 7 infants died now it is 1 in 200 (http://www.parliament.uk/commons/lib/research/rp99/rp99-111.pdf). If you have 1 or 2 kids you really don't want anything to happen to them, being more protective is just a reaction to demographics. And being attentive is not mollycoddling, sometimes it is, sometimes it may appear to be. In fact it may just be good parenting!
David, Egham

It starts with pregnancy. There are so many things we must not do in case we harm our unborn child. Nobody wants to do wrong by their child, but because of all the so-called positive[negative]advice, we start life as parents riddled with guilt.
Jan Green, Harlow Essex

Parents are so focused on raising children that they have forgotten that the task of parents is to raise adults....
Patrick, Cape Town

I grew up eating mud, climbing trees and generally getting filthy. I have the constitution of an ox and as yet have never broken a bone or had anything worse than a bout of flu. I quite agree with Mr O'Farrell that children today are too often wrapped up in cotton wool, spoilt for choice on entertainment and not given the good clean fresh air to breath and get dirty in. No wonder the NHS is heading for trouble, no one's going to have an immune system soon! I look forward to watching the programme on Saturday.
Julia, Eye, Suffolk

It sounds to me that John O'Farrell is angry at his parents for spending too much time in pubs. He'd be better off if his parents gave him more hugs and kisses instead of slurping down another ale.
B.C. Tufts, Baltimore, Maryland, USA

If children do not leave home early enough they end up becoming the parents and a weird cycle of reversed dependency takes place. Apron strings were meant to be cut at age 18 and not age 30.
Ruth, Surrey

This is an interesting read but no more than that. We live in a world where things are a lot different than they were 20 years ago( some better some worst). I do not think you should stand under climbing frames to catch kids when they fall, but, supervision in needed more that ever. I would not chastise any parent for being overprotective of their children. Try talking to a parent who has lost one.
Jim Boyle, belfast Uk

How very true. When I was young I remember going out to play in the morning and coming home in time for supper. I'm sure my mother was not fretting every second about where I was or who I was with because I grew up in a small town where we knew all the neighbours. These days my 5 and 7 year olds are too constrained. I don't feel safe letting them out to play without keeping a careful eye, and yes, we have scheduled activities 4 evenings a week. Why? Because it's the only time I feel safe enough to let them out of my sight. The world is a different place these days. We don't know even half of our neighbours and there's too much at stake...
M Siddall, Creswell, Nottinghamshire

I entirely agree. My brothers and I were thrown out of the house at every opportunity and climbed trees, played hide and seek, marbles and all sorts. The threat of paedophiles is no different now than what it was in the 50's. Media hysteria has contributed towards the paranoia of parents today. They are more in danger of being killed crossing the road as most kids I observe have absolutely no common sense when it comes to negotiating traffic. This comes from being driven everywhere.
Shirley Taylor, London

I think John has no idea how many parents couldn't care less where their kids are or what they are doing! Just look around you my friend. If we need anything, its MORE parental involvement (and responsibility) in their children's' upbringings.
Tony, Wales

Spot on. You have nailed it, Sir. And my vote for your old Geography teacher!! Thank you.
Jim Bryson, Frederick, Maryland USA

Just because you were left in the back of the car while your parents were in the pub, it doesn't mean it was a good idea. Generally speaking, I think things are better today than in the past - My parents used to smoke like chimneys in front of us, something that is frowned upon today. I think John should mind his own business and stop judging other parents, and stick to parenting his own children - if he has any - and remember - you can't see the whole picture from a 5 second snapshot in the park.
Filipa Plant, Porto, Portugal

I believe that parents think that children are so fragile that they will break anytime they get hurt. When will parents see that children need to go through life and that parents need to stop wrapping up the children in cotton wool all of there childhood and adolescent life and let them learn. Give the children space to learn.
Roxanne Brown, Scotland

Maybe parents would let their children run free if they were not so scared of them being abducted, or yobs beating them up for no good reason.

I couldn't agree more with the article. I remember when I was a kid I would cycle everywhere without a helmet, kneepads etc etc. Now I force my son my son to wear them and he's scared that he'll fall off ! We are breeding fear into our children for no reason.
Mike, Stamford, UK

from my view its all the suggestions that we are made to feel "or else" by midwives and health visitors. they make us as parents feel like they are better than us yet most of them don't have kids. I can give you a few horror stories about them 2 professions I can tell you. and what with all the stuff in news about kids being kidnapped etc who can blame parents. and for the way they grow up we are powerless to discipline them since they don't have the treat of being smacked like when I was a kid.
Richard, Manchester

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28 Oct 05 |  Programmes



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