One of the hardest lessons in life has got to be learning when to let go. It applies to anything and everything, but one of the toughest areas is in relation to our children. I read an article in The Guardian yesterday, highlighting the need to let children take more risks. To do otherwise is detrimental to their physical and mental development and increases their chances of bad health habits when they are older.
The piece was prompted by a statement made in an academic journal that promotes outdoor adventure play. It’s a short article, but it made me think about my own childhood, gender and how I’m doing in the five short years that my son has been alive. The statement recommends that children do more of what we might perceive as ‘dangerous’ activities: climbing, jumping from big heights, near water and hills and in situations where they might even get lost for a while. Or, dare I say it, get bored. This should develop their resilience, and make them less likely to indulge in risky teenage behaviour. Or it might scare the bejeesus out of them and scar them for life. It’s a fine line.
Twenty first century parenting is a tough old game. There are multitudes of books, articles, websites and forums telling us what to do, and giving us the opportunity to judge ourselves and each other. Somehow we have to manoeuvre though this parenting jungle, while being ever conscious that a small person is completely dependent on us and sees us as their whole world. That’s enough to scare the crap out of any adult.
We’ve all seen those facebook memes saying ‘ share this if you were born in a time when we went out all day on our bikes with no helmets, carrying slingshots and no-one knew where we were etc etc’. The message being that we were a lot less safety conscious and had a lot more fun. It’s a bit of a cliché but it’s also true. There was less awareness of certain dangers (smoking around kids anyone?) and the technology didn’t exist to keep tabs on us in the same way.
The article quotes an English study that showed that 86% of kids aged 7-11 walked to school without parents in the 70’s, but this had fallen to 25% in 2010. Some of this may be to do with more women in the workplace but it’s more likely the fear that something bad will happen to them. How much of this is grounded in reality? Or are we just projecting our own insecurities onto them?
With my own son, I do feel that I am constantly telling him to be careful, mainly because he is a natural daredevil and loves nothing more than to leap, climb and swing from anything. I am usually saying this at the same time as allowing him to do something that could easily cause an injury. There are many times that my heart has been in my mouth, but I let him do it anyway. Mainly because I trust that I am strong enough to catch him and I have learned to trust his instincts. Yet, I have also coaxed him not to be scared when he is, even when it is something I am afraid of him doing. This means he has learned to overcome his fears. I don’t want him to take on all of mine.
Unfortunately this has already led to a couple of trips to the A&E, although I can’t be held accountable for the time he stuck a drawing pin up his nose at nursery. And only yesterday, he flew off a ride at the play park, crashing to the ground and squashing his arm. Luckily he was fine, but I often wonder, does this make me an irresponsible parent? Although I was left to my own devices a lot to play with friends and siblings when I was growing up, I wasn’t really pushed to be fearless, or try new things. Perhaps I am overcompensating. I want him to be fearless, not reckless.
As parents, our instinct is to protect our children. And of course, when they are tiny, that is what we must do. The challenge is letting go as they grow, knowing what we do of the big bad world. We need to let them experience danger for themselves. Years ago, I worked with group of parents in a poor area of the city, with little in the way of good play facilities. They were campaigning for use of derelict land for a play site, but the interesting thing was their focus on natural play. They had been inspired by play parks in Europe (probably Scandinavia) where children were allowed to play on what looked almost like rubbish dumps: using scraps of wood, tyres, ropes and other rusty old stuff to build dens, make swings and slides and other things that people used to do, before they spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on equipment. They even got to play with fire.
I remember being equally excited and convinced that the council would never let this happen. Too much of a health and safety risk. Yet there were no accidents in the places that they allowed this play. Just children being allowed to use their imagination, to build and create. Do they really need to spend all their free time being ferried to different classes, safely cocooned in community centres and church halls? I don’t think so.
There must be balance. I am not about to let him go walking off on his own at this young age or participate in death defying activities. Neither am I opposed to him going to the odd class in something that interests him. But I also have to let him try things and fail at them, lest he grow up to be a big fearty pants like his mother.
It’s taken me over forty years on this planet to be truly bold. Sure, I’ve taken leaps before, and indulged in risky behaviour of the stupid kind. But I was often afraid to do the things that I most wanted to do, that were really about being myself. I think many of us are in that situation and I do not want that for my son.
A few weeks ago, we were in the woods and jumping on logs. Joining in, I fell off a slippery tree stump, as I leapt from one to the other and fell into a pile of mud. I was lucky not to hurt myself but unlucky to have a few witnesses to this event. It was a risk I took that didn’t pay off and I looked like an idiot doing it, but what the hell. At least I wasn’t afraid to try.
Until next time,