When safe parenting is really dangerous

This is the unedited version of the column that appears in the COurier Mail, 1 June 2011:

You know parenting and society have reached a critical point when an early childhood education specialist claims that children’s playgrounds, the last bastion of kiddy fun, are ‘too safe’.

At an Early Childhood Conference in Melbourne this week, Prue Walsh also said that playground injuries were often a result of children being poorly co-ordinated because they didn’t know how to negotiate risks.

The expression ‘cotton wool kids’ has become a popular euphemism to describe this generation of kids, who are so mollycoddled by their parents, they have no resilience or ability to cope with obstacles or failure – in the playground and well beyond.

Afraid of their children becoming victims of everything from bullying to sunburn, kids are being denied access to their natural environment. Instead and, quite ironically, children are installed in the ‘safety’ of an artificial one – their homes, usually in front of a screen.

Termed ‘strawberries’ in Taiwan (because they’re tough on the outside but soft on the inside), contemporary kids are deprived of access to the type of play that children for centuries enjoyed, suffered and, most importantly, survived.

But what are the long-term consequences of this denial?

According to a range of experts, they’re pretty dire.

In his book, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv writes that the ‘indoor generation’ of children we’ve raised has created a ‘disconnection between childhood and nature.’ He calls it ‘nature-deficit disorder’ and equates it to a form of sensory deprivation.

In his book No Fear: Growing Up In A Risk-Averse Society, UK early childhood expert Tim Gill warns of over-protecting children.

Gill asserts that removing potential dangers deprives children of the ability to evaluate and react accordingly to risks. He cites playground rubber padding, a mandatory feature in most nations, as an example, stating that it may be less safe than the old-style hard surfaces.

This is partly because in understanding the hazards involved both children and parents were more vigilant.

In a backlash against ‘cotton wool kids’, the ‘slow-parenting’ movement has been established in the US and Canada.

Carl Honore, who wrote the book, Under Pressure: Putting the Child Back in Childhood, says he’s felt a sea-change in the last 18 months. From the opening of outdoor preschools in Canada or the British government telling schools they’ve gone too far in shutting down field trips because of minute injury risk, there’s a groundswell against being over-protective.

When Honore asks audiences about their strongest childhood memories, most of those over age 25 remember being outside and a lack of restriction, whereas those under 25 have indoor recollections that feature electronics.

The second annual ‘Take Our Children to the Park and Leave Them There Day’ was held in New York recently, organized by the founder of the ‘Free Range Kids’ movement, Lenore Skenazy. In 2008, she wrote about letting her then nine-year-old son ride the subway alone, and scandalized a nation.

Her provocative actions were also a call to sanity.

We’ve never lived in safer times, and yet we’re the most apprehensive group of parents ever. We feed off the plethora of horror stories, anecdotal, media-driven and share them – about criminals lurking in all corners, every stranger being a danger, of the terror of cyberspace, and what can befall anyone who ignores these perils.

If our children do take a tumble, or, sadly, are seriously hurt, we seek to punish everyone by altering the landscape, setting ridiculous boundaries and rules, banning, or even suing for what is often an accident, not a deliberate attempt to sabotage childhood.

Gerard Jones, author of Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence, writes, ‘Adult anxieties about the effects of entertainment are sometimes the real causes of the very effects we fear most.’

There’s no doubt, parenting is a balancing act, but common sense should always tip the scales. Avoiding or changing playgrounds and outdoor play because of something that likely will never happen is often an hysterical overreaction that can cause more harm than good.

As Louv wistfully notes about his childhood experiences: ‘Those woods and fields shaped me; they were my Ritalin.’

Sun, grass, bruises, scrapes, dirt between the toes – now they’re highs every child should have.




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