Children, Covid-19 and Parental Responsibility


Dr Deniz Arzuk, University College London

On June 1st, after 10 weeks of lockdown, primary schools in England have reopened for children in Years 1, 6, and Reception. Yet, the initial reports suggest that turn-out is low, and parents are still unconvinced and hesitant to send their children back to school. This is unsurprising given that both the teachers’ and doctors’ unions, and the independent SAGE have raised their concerns about safety in schools prior to the reopening. The issue is further complicated by the ambiguity around the questions about how children themselves are affected by and pass on Covid-19.

The reopening is part of the government’s vague “stay alert” strategy, which entails an easing of lockdown measures without a convincing improvement of the circumstances. The strategy has been criticised for shifting the blame to the public by suggesting lives can be saved if people behave appropriately, but not offering them the means to do so. The immediate effects of this approach are visible in the social media posts blaming careless individual behaviour for further spread of the disease when more businesses are open and more people are expected to go back to work. As a researcher of childhood in the late twentieth century, I cannot help but notice how these debates echo the findings of my own research.

Blaming the individual for public health crises is not a new trend, but a prominent feature of late capitalism. It is often observed how the neoliberal individual is responsibilised for keeping healthy, which often requires finding personal solutions to social and systemic problems. Individual responsibility takes on a slightly different form when it comes to children’s health. Since children are not the fully capable neoliberal subjects, it is their parents, and especially the mothers who are expected to keep maintaining children’s health by making healthy choices on their behalf.

In my most recent article on children’s health and safety in Turkey the 1980s and 1990s, I traced the way news reporting shifted focus from society to the family. For instance, whereas 1970s news about children’s health rarely mentioned families, by the late 1980s, almost half of such reports were written to offer advice to parents. The responsibilisation of parents was further emphasised by moral panics about sprees found among random incidents, such as domestic accidents, which presented risky parenting as the primary threat to children’s health. There are numerous examples of similar moral panics about children’s health in Britain, from the AIDS pandemic to unintentional injuries at home, and from childhood obesity to children’s independent movement.

Health Education Council poster, c. 1980-87

These moral panics suggested that maintaining children’s health was a matter of controlling the child rather than correcting the environment. This was particularly visible in the panic reporting about obesity and children’s food consumption, and can be seen again in depictions of children as unruly spreaders of Covid-19. Many were also coupled with a second wave of moral panic about how too much parental anxiety and overprotection would harm children, as in the discussion of whether children should be allowed to go out unsupervised or not following the murder of James Bulger in 1993. In other words, parents were expected to calculate and navigate risk to find a balance between children’s physical safety and mental well-being to avoid deliberately hurting their vulnerable children.

It has been observed that once parents are responsibilised, they accept this responsibility and develop strategies to justify their choices and embrace it as a position. Right after the decision to reopen schools was announced, there were reports that both the parents who wished to send their children back to school and those who did not felt they were being blamed by those acting differently. As such, both actions are labelled as “risky parenting;” the former for putting the child at risk of catching and spreading the disease, the latter for ignoring children’s mental well-being and development. Yet, neither representation acknowledges that these arise from different needs and circumstances outside the parents’ control. From juxtaposing different courses of action, it is an easy jump to headlines like “fallen infants are corrupting playmates” the way the Daily Mail did in 1988, which singled out other people’s – risky parents’ – children as the problem.

Another important consequence of the emphasis on parental and individual responsibility is th

at it diverts the attention away from problems that cannot be addressed by the parents, but require social solutions. This, in turn, serves to exclude other issues that affect children from the agenda. Just like the 1980s and 1990s when the media focused more on parental control over children’s food consumption than on inequalities in children’s access to healthy food choices, today the focus is more on whether parents should send children to school, and not for example, on children’s other needs, such as provision, social services, and access to space. This is particularly alarming considering how Covid-19 disproportionally affects already vulnerable groups.

Although children appear to be at the focus today, our discussion revolves around two parallel constructions of children as vulnerable victims and unruly spreaders of diseases. This leaves little room for them to be recognised as valid subjects with their own voices and a right to be heard. Children’s health and well-being is not something that is to be burdened on parents alone. It requires a more responsible and comprehensive approach that takes into account children’s intersectional vulnerabilities, their needs, and most importantly, their own views about these questions.


About the Author

Deniz Arzuk is a researcher of childhood based at the University College London. Her research primarily deals with the relations between social change and the conceptualisations of childhood in the contemporary world, with a particular focus on inequality, discrimination, and distinction. She is currently conducting a MSCA-IF research project “Is there no such thing as childhood?” on changing representations of children in Turkey and in Britain during the 1980s and 1990s.

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