Contrary to popular opinion, children play a key role in strengthening local communities and making people feel safe in their neighbourhoods, according to a study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).
Much panic today about childhood in urban areas is based on a very partial picture, argue the authors, Dr Susie Weller and Professor Irene Brugel, of the Families and Social Capital ESRC research group, London South Bank University.
Their report challenges previous theories that social networks are largely determined by parents. According to the evidence they found, children are active - both indirectly and directly - in forging neighbourly relationships and connections for their parents.
The findings are from a three-year study involving some 600 children and 80 parents in five contrasting areas - two inner London boroughs, an outer London suburb, a new town in the South East of England, and a city in the Midlands. During the study, the researchers examined children's experiences of travelling to school and to a wide range of activities outside the home - from formal clubs to hanging out in the park.
They found that the more parents were involved in the lives of their neighbours, the more freedom they gave their children. At the same time, the more social networks children have in a neighbourhood, the greater parents' confidence in the safety of that area.
Many parents questioned were often torn between wishing to protect their children and wanting them to be streetwise.
Dr Weller said: "On the one hand, children are frequently portrayed as vulnerable, incompetent, and in need of protection from the possible dangers of town and city streets. On the other, those allowed to go out and meet up in public areas are often regarded as intimidating and anti-social."
However, many parents suggested that they had established more networks and friendships in the local area through their children than by any other means. This contact came via ante-natal classes, the nursery and the primary school, or through their children's friends' families.
Parents acknowledged that their children had much less freedom to roam or explore the neighbourhood than they enjoyed. They saw this as a problem, and would generally like the youngsters to be out and about more.
Said Dr Weller: "Whether the children were or not depended on a number of things. Very often it reflected a local school culture as well as parents' and children's experiences of trust and mistrust in an area. Parents whose children had been subject to racial harassment or bullying were particularly wary."
The research suggests that when parents allow their children to roam, their classmate's parents draw from that confidence. This in turn impacts upon their classmates' freedom of action.
The researchers also found local differences as to which children go out and about without adults, and these were not simply related to poverty, racial background or local levels of crime.
Children living outside London were much less likely to travel unaccompanied than those in the capital - and those who went to schools with high rates of poverty least of all. Even so, children at schools with similar levels of local poverty in Inner London travelled more than those living elsewhere.
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT:
Dr Susie Weller on 020 7815 5811, e-mail: email@example.com
ESRC Press Office
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NOTES FOR EDITORS:
1. The paper "Children's 'place' in the development of neighbourhood social capital" is based on findings from a four-year project "Locality, School and Social Capital", funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. Dr. Susie Weller and Professor Irene Bruegel are in the Families and Social Capital ESRC research group, London South Bank University, LONDON SE1 0AA.
2. Methodology: The three-year study, involving some 600 children between the ages of 11 and 14, and 80 parents, took place in five contrasting locations: two socially and ethnically diverse inner-city areas of London; one white working-class inner-city area in the Midlands; one predominantly white, lower-middle class new town in South East England; and an affluent outer London suburb. Techniques included use of questionnaires, interviews and focus groups, and activity sheets with families from various cultural, ethnic, religious and class backgrounds.
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