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Child rearing and ‘freedom’. How child boundaries can get parents into knots

May 24, 2015
Child in walking harness, image © Marilyn Barbone, courtesy of Shutterstock.

Child in walking harness, image © Marilyn Barbone, courtesy of Shutterstock.

Earlier this month, the press reproduced a shocking image: a CAT scan of a suitcase stopped at the border of a Spanish territory in North Africa, revealing a very distressed 8-year-old boy curled up in an agonising foetal position: his parents were trying to smuggle him across.

It got me thinking about the lengths (or should that be limits?) that parents go to to try to secure the long-term wellbeing of their offspring: about the irony of mothers and fathers buying the many parental accoutrements of constriction currently in use – buying them at a not insignificant financial and sometimes emotional and ethical cost – yet aiming them at their children’s ultimate freedom and good.

Cards on the table: I’m not a parent. But I’m a multiple aunt and godmother, and have worked with children and young people and their parents for much of my life; so I’m still allowed to observe, I hope, on parenting and its challenges.

The story of the child harness, or child reins, is an interesting one. ‘Leading strings’ may date back to the 17th century Netherlands as devices of tied rope used more to help teach children to walk than as restraints. Rubens and other painters feature them in their art through to the 19th century; but it was urban growth from late that century and the increasing dangers from motorised traffic into the 20th that prompted their more widespread use, especially in towns, to keep children close at hand and safe. (I’m 60, my sister and brother in their 50s: we were trotted around on child reins when we were small.) And yet harnesses then fell out of fashion – only to come back somewhat into common use more recently. But why? According to social historians, it was 1993 and the horror of the Jamie Bulger case that caused another pendulum swing. (Jamie was the toddler abducted by two older children from a shopping centre where he’d been taken by his mother, and brutally murdered on a railway line in Liverpool.)

The harness’s changing patterns of use is what really makes this historical cameo fascinating. As child-rearing historians and experts point out, ‘The history of child-rearing practices [is] characterized by radical vacillations between a positive and nurturing concept and a negative and suppressive perspective’ (History of Child-Rearing Practices:

‘In antiquity, adults regarded children as troublesome animals; and until two centuries ago, children were treated much like pets and were used and abused even unto death…. The nineteenth century saw an idealizing attitude emerge that made raising a child less a process of conquering its will than training it, guiding it into proper paths, and socializing it to become a useful member of the nation…. More recently, the “helping” mode of child rearing began. Here the parent is encouraged to let the child’s physiological and psychological needs as they emerge determine what guidance and assistance is to be given.’ (Child Rearing in the Past,

Parents have to be honest with themselves, I guess: to admit that the ups and downs in modishness of all the different types of child restraint they can resort to are a reality not only because of parental desires for the best for their children but also driven by their own concerns and fears – furthermore, the researchers say, very much by their experiences of how they themselves were raised.

Some have studied the influence of parenting experts on all this, too. According to Ann Hulbert, author of the 2003 book Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children, f’rinstance, every single prominent parenting ‘expert’ from the 20th century has a background of either reverence for or reaction against their own parents, subjective experiences which have imbued their iron-clad theories about what is ‘right’ for children, however much they may claim that they’re based on scientific ‘fact’. The same must be true of many lay parents among us.

Of course there are micro-cultures of parenting fashion, too. Until recently I lived in a cohousing community (see my post: This progressive housing estate encapsulated for me the two ends of the current parenting spectrum. Some parent neighbours, many influenced by the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, let their offspring roam free around the (only partially enclosed) neighbourhood, unchastised if they climbed on shared windowsills, or railings overhanging vertiginous drops (it’s a very steep site); if they jumped from one piece of communal furniture to another; or if they got up and shouted, sang, danced, played and obscured the audience’s view during communal musical and dramatic performances. These parents believe (I hope I represent their views aright) that children should be allowed to discover their own limits, dangers and self-discipline. (In what may seem a contradiction of this stance, some even practice ‘co-sleeping’ with their children until they’re as old as 7 or 8, not wishing to oblige them to have their own bedrooms until they state their own readiness for one.) Other neighbours parent in the more traditional mode, imposing rules and limits and their own ideas about discipline. For those of us childless on the estate, or whose children had grown and migrated elsewhere, watching these child-rearing tugs of war and sometimes feeling we wished to intervene in the public communal spaces was a tense – and not always spectator – sport.

Apart from the child harness, there are masses of other restraining (and/or secure and reassuring, depending on your point of view) devices and methods that can cause much controversy: the baby sling; the baby bouncer; the baby monitor; the child seat; changing physical restraint practices in schools and secure units; parental locks on the computer; the playpen.

Ah yes, the playpen – in the US often called the kiddie enclosure. Many parents still use them, but many equally have qualms. Its origins may be the ‘naughty cage’. This was a piece of Victorian equipment used in some schools to segregate the badly behaved from the rest in large and busy classrooms. I encountered one of these, wooden, with sturdy bars – treasured as an amusing artefact for the foyer, I hasten to add – known as the ‘naughty boys’ cage’ – in a UK primary school where I once worked. Strangely at odds with his progressive work, even Joseph Lancaster, a 19th century educational pioneer, avoided such punishments as beating children in favour of suspending the naughtiest of the naughty in a cage from his classroom ceiling (

As for the playpen (in places now rebranded the Pack’n’Play® or the playard – play-yard), parents’ arguments pro are: it sets young children helpful boundaries; its reachable balustrades even encourage them to stand and take their first few steps; it can be filled with exciting stimuli (toys, mobiles, playmats, musical instruments); it bars young ‘uns from the harm of plug sockets, stoves, fires, stairs, open windows, pets, other potentially aggressive, jealous children; it allows the parent uninterrupted time to do chores that may also be dangerous or frightening (ironing, cooking, hoovering). Arguments con are: child-proofing your home (plug protectors, stair gates, fire guards) is a better solution, more closely mimicking the open spaces of the real world, but in a safe, navigable way; and that such devices as the playpen are the first compromise to good parenting. According to Penelope Leach’s Your Baby and Child, ‘babies who spend hours confined in cribs or playpens, with few toys and minimal adult attention, are very slow in learning to reach out and get hold of things and that means they are also slow in discovering what can be done with things’. And Mavis Klein’s The Psychodynamic Counseling Primer claims that ‘children of about seven or eight… who were, as infants, regularly confined in playpens, are less competent at reading and writing than those who were not’; and John Rosemond, in New Parent Power!, that ‘children who spend lots of time confined in cribs or playpens suffered delayed speed and are less coordinated’.

I can’t find research studies or data to back up these pronouncements; however, many parents these days express guilt about the possible anaesthetising effects of their regular usage of the modern-day virtual equivalents of the playpen – the TV, computer gadgets and mobiles, and the DVD – in order to soft-touch-immobilise their offspring, keeping them supposedly ‘safe’ from harm.

Coming back to fads and fashions. We’re filling our materialistic world with artefacts, huge numbers of them aimed at ‘securing’ our children for their own good. In many societies, these items quickly become ‘must-haves’: not only to upstage fellow parents but to prove to others that one’s parenting is research-responsive, and sometimes, to legally comply. Health and Safety and parenting advice continually shift however over, e.g., the designs of buggy/pram that are ‘best’ for baby (forward-facing, backward-facing, low, higher up). Re: car seating alone, in UN countries parents must graduate their child through rearward-facing/combination seats (rearward/backward-facing) to forward-facing seats to high-backed seats to booster cushions of changing weights, sizes and specifications.

Unless you’ve been in a playpen yourself with an oversized child’s cycle helmet over your head for the last couple of decades, it can’t have escaped your notice that spending on children’s things generally has skyrocketed. In 2012, first-time UK parents-to-be were spending £100 on toys; the status symbol of the pram/pushchair/buggy now accounts for 30% of all spending on baby/nursery products; in 2011, nearly 20% of parents had bought a TV for their baby’s bedroom. Strikingly, a 2013 survey put UK average spending on toys per child each year since 2009 at around $450, topping even US spending (followed by France, then Germany, then Russia, Italy and Spain)!!!( Such trends are not so much due to peer pressure, parenting guru Frank Furedi argues, as the fact that increasingly parents regard their children, and their treatment of them, as a reflection of who they, the parents, are – not helped by the further fact that governments and political parties frame children’s development more and more as a commentary on parental accomplishment. ‘That kind of [public] pressure erodes the line between mother and father and child, financially and emotionally,’ Furedi says. (

A thought-provoking question: what d’you consider the most notable parental boundary for children in this day and age, certainly in more wealthy cultures? My answer: you could say, the physical bounds of the bedroom. Here, maybe, is the new-form cusp of the conflict between children’s impulsions to freedom and any constraints that adults set them. On Saturday 16 May, the UK’s Daily Telegraph Magazine featured six photographers’ images of their children in their rooms (in Brazil, the Netherlands, California, London….) The piece was glossed by such parental comments as ‘They spend a lot of time playing together in here – otherwise they would take over the whole house‘ (my italics); ‘The colour of Ella’s room has changed many times…. I haven’t looked [at it] carefully in a while‘ (again, my italics); ‘Gus redecorates his room several times a year.’

What strikes me (and I know I’m far from the first to remark on this) is an impression of an exponential increase in children’s autonomy but also, potentially, of their isolation within the family household. Further, having computers and TVs in their rooms at once frees children and potentially holds them captive – even though partly in an adult effort to secure them from more harm ‘on the outside’. Meanwhile, once children are inside these private, self-designed spaces, how much do their parents remember to keep in touch with how their little ones are developing: to track and notice what is really going on?

There’s an age-old undercurrent even to these trends that intrigues me. Look at what some would call less developed societies and we’re sharply reminded that even now, multitudes of adults regard children as ‘other’, as not the same as them. The Arunta of central Australia and the Eskimos of the sub-Arctic regard children as the bearers of spirits of ancient Aborigines and Eskimo relatives respectively. Some African communities fear malignant witchcraft or Ndoki, believing it targets children particularly, either in the womb or the early years, often invading its objects through infected food; the result: traumatising child exorcisms, or even child trafficking and ritual child sacrifice.

I can’t help thinking that even in the so-called developed world we have a two-faced attitude to childhood: that young people are simultaneously little projections of ourselves, of our desires, of what we’d like to be, and on the second hand ‘other’, untarnished, unknowable and unknown – and part of us would like them to stay that way.

Expressed in child-friendly language, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child upholds children’s right to ‘a safe place to live’; ‘a clean and safe environment’; ‘to find out things’; ‘to privacy’; ‘to protection’; ‘to play and rest’. It also states that ‘No one is allowed to punish you in a cruel or harmful way,’ ‘You have the right to find out things,’ and that ‘You have the right to get information that is important to your well-being…. Adults should make sure that the information you are getting is not harmful.’

So what do children think about all this themselves? A 2010 Irish survey of 6 to 17-year-olds discovered that, across this span, although wide, children appreciated that:

‘- Parents represent important figures of authority and control… the monitoring and checking of children’s activities and whereabouts, enforcing limits and boundaries, and disciplining….
– Rules were necessary in order to protect children from harm and to promote their well-being…. Avoidance of risk and safety issues were highlighted in children’s narratives.
– Parental monitoring of children’s behaviour and whereabouts was facilitated largely through talking, asking questions and via mobile phones….
– Older children emphasised the need for their right to privacy to be balanced with parents’ right to monitor and regulate their activities….’

(From Children’s Perspectives on Parenting Styles and Discipline: A Developmental Approach, published in the National Children’s Research Strategy Series:

From the above – and again, this isn’t an earth-shattering thought – what seems required far more with children when negotiating the knotty problem of boundaries is cross-generational communication – as found above from children themselves, who valued ‘talking, and asking questions’. But the question remains, what to do when children are as yet too young, or immature, to engage?

Take swaddling. From times of yore newborns were tightly bound so that they had no ability to move at all. Held thus, they could be hung on a peg, laid on a shelf or put in a receptacle of the parent’s choice and convenience. (There were reasons given for this: that babies’ limbs were not yet fully ‘set’, and they might also damage themselves or others by thrashing about.) Rendered almost totally passive, their hearts would slow down, they would sleep more and be more generally withdrawn. After nine months, the infant was kept docile by underfeeding and purging; when of crawling age, as crawling was seen as the demeaning behaviour of animals they were held in restraints or stocks until they were old enough to walk. It was only in the late 1700s and into the 18th century that other ideas about child rearing emerged.

And yet, and yet…. In the late 1960s my much younger brother slept in a kind of zip-up sleeping bag, designed to keep him from throwing off the bedclothes in his cot; and now, today, swaddling is almost popular again, albeit in a looser, more temporarily used and humane form. Parents report that their babies are ‘happy’ sleeping, and sleep more deeply, in so-called swaddle pods, their legs and arms folded far away inside. Certainly, the enthusiasts declare, they can no longer scratch themselves or poke their fingers in their eyes. Without being able to question their infants, or include them as part of some longitudinal study into childhood development, the doubt of course remains: how will we ever know what is ‘good’ for these swaddled ones for sure?

The fashionable swaddle pod.

The fashionable swaddle pod.

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