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Wrapping our children in cotton wool

By Daniel Donahoo - posted Friday, 5 January 2007

The buzz in the childcare industry in 2006 has been introducing “cutting-edge technology” to keep children safe and secure. This includes finger-print activated doors, closed circuit television in all rooms and personal records and files of all adults authorised to pick children up. Forget Big Brother. Forget The Truman Show. For a growing number of children 24-hour surveillance is just another part of life. This isn’t a morning roll call or the same as a sign-in sheet and we must consider what impact it will have on our children.

Childhood is becoming over-regulated. Children are being subject to the balances and checks of government, rather than the support and care of early childhood professionals. Nothing is worse for a Community Services Minister than a photo of a cute, but missing child on the front of the daily papers. So, as important as childhood development is politicians will always put it second compared to the risk children’s services pose to their ongoing tenure.

Today children are never allowed to be alone, especially in children’s services. Even in moments we adults consider the most private.


At the beginning of the year when I visited my son’s pre-school I noticed, as per regulations, that there were no doors on the toilets. Not only that, the toilets could be observed from an adult height from anywhere in the room. Since my son began toilet training, he has guarded his privacy and always asks the adult with him to “please go away”. We do and close the door. He is quite capable, as nearly all pre-school children are, of going to the toilet by himself. But, at pre-school his basic right to a bit of privacy when he is on the loo is taken away from him. What message is that sending to him? How does it make him feel?

As adults we would find the same situation humiliating. Children’s emotions are no different from adults and I can only guess my son experiences a similar level of embarrassment and shame, as would any adult. In aged care and disability services an ongoing rejection of institutionalised practice means that people in those services are afforded more privacy - the doors to their toilets and showers are being put back on.

We are further instituting a culture of fear surrounding our children based on little empirical evidence and more on the sensationalism of the child abuse lobby and the out-dated idea of childhood innocence.

This means children’s services workers face intense scrutiny. The focus on the physical space of childcare centres, how high the fences are, how dangerous the play equipment is, takes precedent over how engaged and happy the children are. Childcare centre staff never take children out into the community, our litigious society has made it too great a risk. Yet, it is in adventures to the local park or engaging with the broader community that so many developmental opportunities exist for children who are programmed to absorb and learn.

Early childhood development is about just that - development. And development is about taking risks, making mistakes and learning from them. How can our children learn and grow into capable young adults if we don’t provide an atmosphere where experiences are diverse and have a level of uncertainty.

Human beings are not designed to work in secure and stable environments. We are designed to adapt, to change, to deal with uncertainty. Our over-regulation of childhood is limiting our capacity to provide the breadth of developmental opportunities that our children need. It is taking away uncertainty and leaving less room for diverse developmental opportunities.


There are no longer see-saws in parks and swings will be the next to go. Children can play shops or banks, but fewer now experience the real thing. The toilet doors have been removed and replaced with surveillance cameras. A broken arm in the schoolyard isn’t another part of growing up but the demonstration of a school neglecting its duty of care.

On one level it might seem safer, but we can’t stop accidents happening to our children - in fact our children need to make mistakes - so they can learn from them. What we need is a bit less “cutting edge technology” - and a bit more attention on supporting our children’s development.

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About the Author

Journalist and columist with The Age, Sushi Das says he is ‘one of today’s young rebels’. Author and ethicist Leslie Cannold has referred to him as one of her ‘gorgeous men’.

Daniel Donahoo is fellow with OzProspect, a non-partisan, public policy think tank. He writes regularly for Australia's daily papers and consults on child and family issues. A father to two boys. Daniel's first book is called Idolising Children and explores our society’s obsession with childhood and youth. Updates on Daniel's work can be found at

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