One of the things that really concerns me about the way children are being raised is the degree to which they are wrapped in cotton wool. Children of today are almost constantly supervised by parents and other adults. They rarely get a chance to take physical risks. They don’t get enough exercise. They don’t learn to climb, balance or fall. They are not allowed to use building tools. They are not given the opportunity to problem-solve and make choices concerning their safety. We adults have taken these basic rights away from them.
When I was a child most children were able to play unsupervised from a young age. We walked to our friends’ houses or to creeks several blocks away. We walked or rode to school. We climbed trees and fences. We built and played in tree houses. We challenged each other to jump off shed rooves while holding onto an umbrella like Mary Poppins. We had fun! I used to feel quite sorry for a couple of friends back then who had overprotective parents who would not allow them out and about in the same way. They always seemed a little sad, nervous and bored to me, even as a seven year old.
But now, sadly, the whole western world has become like those families. Children are driven everywhere, and have adults restricting and supervising their every move. They are not allowed to take risks.
Health and Safety Madness
I worked in a children’s mental health in schools project a few years ago and was horrified by the health and safety restrictions that were stifling the opportunity for fun and adventure. We did manage to get permission to take a few children fishing in a highly structured and supervised specialised fishing activity centre, but the health and safety paperwork would have filled two shoe boxes, and going anywhere near the ocean was out of the question, even though we were in a seaside town. Schools and councils of today are terrified of law suits, while parents fear being judged as irresponsible. Parents are also scared, of course, that their children will be injured or abducted, but the risks of this have to be balanced against benefits of a more relaxed approach.
What Might be the Consequences of our Risk Intolerance?
Apart from the obvious effects that the lack of exercise and gross motor skill practice can have on the child’s physical development, the psychological consequences of an overprotected childhood can be really dangerous. The world is a risky place, so children need to learn how to manage risk themselves: to assess risk and make good decisions based on likely consequences. By not allowing them to practice these basic skills, we are stifling their cognitive development in this area and are likely to be creating adults who take stupid risks, or anxious people who see their world as a terrifying place to live in.
Parents Teach Children to be Calm or Fearful
Children learn a great deal about the world and themselves from their parents. If their parents tell them with words or actions that the world is a dangerous place that can’t be trusted, and if they are told that they can’t be trusted as people, then they are likely to learn to be fearful and doubt themselves.
When a child is climbing a fence, it is common for parents to shout, ‘Don’t fall!’ or, ‘Get down, you are going to fall!’ The problem is that these comments create that outcome in the child’s mind, so they increase the chances of the child falling. Children are naturally good climbers with a great sense of balance, and practice makes perfect. In most situations it would be better for a parent to calmly say, ‘Good climbing. You are balancing/holding on really well.’
Murderers and Paedophiles
Parents of today fear murderers and paedophiles more than our parents did. But the reality is that the rates of child abduction, which are infinitesimally low if you omit abductions by parents, have not risen over the decades. Paedophile stories are in every newspaper nowadays, and the law is prosecuting more, often retrospectively, but that does not mean that there are more dangerous paedophiles out there. I remember our neighbourhood paedophiles when I was a child. They were the men I, personally, stayed away from, because of my well developed sense of risk. And, of course, there is a certain irony in the fact that by keeping children at home to enhance their physically safety, we are actually exposing them more to paedophiles via the internet.
The Future Meets the Past
I read a great article recently about an innovative playground project that allows children to play in the mud with old tyres, timber and broken chairs, slide down a hill in a bin, and even light fires. Although adults are present, their intervention is very minimal. This gives the children the opportunity to play, problem solve, take risks, experience the consequences first hand, create and explore, while interacting healthily with each other.
What a healthy, happy, fun idea. Let’s allow our kids to do more of this. Let’s allow them to have childhoods worth remembering. Let’s allow them to develop their minds and bodies in ways that help them to face to world, and all its future risks, wisely, competently and calmly, with healthy bodies, smiles on their faces, and twinkles in their eyes.