Spanish children: prisoners in own homes
Higher crime rates, increased traffic in Spanish cities see worried parents keep tighter rein on children.
"Mom! I'm going out for a while!" These days, if you hear a child say that, they most likely live in a village. As Spain's cities have grown, traffic levels have increased and crime perpetrated against infants and juveniles has risen.
The overall effect is that children today have become a vast unseen minority in urban areas. Shuttled to and from school by their parents, often via an increasing number of extracurricular activities, Spain's youngest generation is spending more time cooped up indoors than any other, secluded from the games in parks and plazas that their parents and grandparents enjoyed.
Most have to be 12 years old to venture outside alone - and only then under the close supervision of their parents or other adults.
For example, Guillermo, aged 11, is allowed to play in a park near his home off Madrid's Plaza de Oriente, usually with friends. "If they go together, I feel better," says Guillermo's mother, who keeps an eye on him from the balcony of her apartment.
Blanca, meanwhile, is allowed to walk the block from her home to flute classes alone and carry out a few errands in the neighborhood, so long as she has her cellphone on her.
Half of all Spanish children between the age of six and 11 have cellphones, perhaps the only thing that has kept the trend toward childhood confinement from progressing more rapidly in today's safety- and security-obsessed society.
A big part of the problem, sociologists say, is that cities have not developed with children in mind.
"Cities seem to be solely at the service of adults who move around in cars," argues Lourdes Gaitán, a sociologist at Madrid's Complutense University. Children, like other pedestrians, are largely invisible, she adds. That, however, does not necessarily change the nature of modern-day childhood, merely the places in which it unfolds.
"They play the same as before. Infancy, by nature, leads to games, because they are a child's way of relating to the world," explains Fernando Vidal, a professor at Comillas Pontific University. "Children are able to play and create their own worlds even in the most extreme conditions," he notes.
Vidal and Rosalía Mota, a fellow sociologist, are the authors of a recent study about childhood that revealed several interesting trends.
One is that children are tending to spend more time alone - not just because they play less in the street but also because Spanish families in general have fewer children, resulting in more single offspring.
It is also due to the fact that both parents are likely to work, often until well past the time that their children come home from school. Those who do not participate in extracurricular activities can spend hours on end alone in their bedrooms.
"They tend to build their own world in their room. Firstly, because they are the sole owners of the room, being only children. Secondly, because children's rooms now come packed with stuff that until recently was unimaginable: 40 percent have a television, music systems, computers and a wireless internet connection," Vidal notes.
His study revealed that six out of 10 children say that their bedroom is their favorite place to be, a mentality that, taken to an extreme, can lead to phenomena such as "hikikomori" - an increasingly common and alarming trend in Japan in which children eat, sleep and live in near total self-imposed solitary confinement.
Though few reach such extremes, most urban parents are less worried about their children spending time alone than about them playing outside.
"Contradictions abound. There are parents who use security as an excuse to keep their children from playing in the street, but end up encouraging them to go out so they don't spend all afternoon playing computer games. On the other hand, it has become so uncommon to see children alone that when some are outside for a long period the neighbors criticise the parents," Gaitán notes.
Sociologists worry that a general lack of interaction outside of school during childhood can have lasting effects. At adolescence, for example, when the parents' protective wall comes down, many children go from playing in their rooms to drinking in late-night street parties in the space of a year or even just a few months.
"It's a mistake for things to happen so suddenly," says Silvia Álava, a psychologist. "We should be making children more independent from when they are little. If we do that, they will be better prepared for adolescence."
8 December 2008
text by: El Pais / Inmaculada de la Fuente / Expatica