Children pushing boundaries and taking risks is nothing new, as Ursula Hirschkorn discovers
‘It’s not like it was in my day’ has been a familiar cry for generations as parents clash with their children over what they can and can’t do. While modern parents quake over the rise of new terrors such as sexting, cyber bullying and the erosion of social life in favour of social media, what they forget is how much their own parents fretted about similar threats to their childhood innocence.
It is the way of the world that children will find new ways to scare the pants off their parents with their new fangled ideas and lack of respect, but this cycle is as old as the hills.
What parents like Tory MP Claire Perry, who recently advocated spying on your children’s social media and texts, fail to understand is that while she might be terrified by what her children are getting up to online, in actual fact they are simply acting out one of the time-honoured rituals of youth – indulging in potentially risky behaviour that frightens their parents.
Tim Gill, author of No Fear: Growing Up In A Risk Averse Society and whose website rethinkingchildhood.com explores the changing nature of childhood, agrees. ‘I prime myself to be wary of scaremongering,’ he says. ‘Moral panics have accompanied every new medium from penny dreadful comics to TV, and children seem to adjust to these reasonably well’.
In fact, the dangers that lie in wait behind the computer screen are perhaps the least of our worries as parents. Today’s children are already cushioned from many of the risks their parents took freely in their youth. Playing outside with their friends, walking to school alone or doing a paper round on their bike. Do we really need to wrap them up in even more layers of cotton wool by invading every aspect of their lives with our suffocating concern?
‘Not allowing children to take risks means they are shielded from negative consequences, and this isn’t always a good thing,’ says mum-of-three Alvira. ‘All the old-school, anti health and safety play I did in childhood taught me useful lessons in how to weigh odds and act accordingly.’
Children have to learn how to handle risks – and now these may lurk onscreen rather than around the playground – and to cope with potentially dangerous situations. If they don’t, how will they ever manage in adult life when their parents are no longer there to protect them?
‘As parents we have become completely paranoid,’ says dad of two young sons Simon. ‘The risks are no greater than 30 years ago. One of our great wonders is letting [our children] do something new that we feel is risky. Parents need to learn to let go. The kids will be fine.’
It’s natural to want to keep our children free from harm, but by doing so we are in danger of creating children who have no skills to cope with the tricky and scary situations they will surely face in later life.
‘If parents attempt to remove all risks from their children’s lives they will raise naïve, sheltered children who are unprepared for life’s challenges,’ say Nancy Eppler-Wolff and Susan Davis, authors of Raising Children Who Soar: A Guide to Healthy Risk Taking In An Uncertain World. ‘Children develop confidence and sound decision-making skills through taking positive risks. Children who are healthy risk takers are tenacious, can take pleasure in their achievements and can tolerate failure and disappointment,’
When I was growing up my parents gave me this precious gift of independence, allowing me in my early teens to travel alone from our home in Brussels to see my sister in London and to to walk home unescorted after a night out. I did face the odd tricky moment, but I was fine and it taught me how to judge and handle potentially dangerous situations.
This has turned me into a woman who has the confidence go out for a solo run on the London streets or to explore a new city all by myself. Of course there are risks associated with this, but they are far outweighed by the benefits of enjoying this freedom. For every tragic horror story of murder, rape or suicide as a result of cyberbullying, there are millions more who have skirted close to danger and lived to tell the tale as a wiser, braver, stronger human being.
One of the hardest things is to have the courage as a parent to allow your child to take risks. ‘Keep in mind the big picture and the goal that every parent surely shares: of raising your children to be confident, capable, responsible and resilient people,’ says Gill. ‘Accept that allowing children to have a taste of freedom and responsibility means learning how to apply, every now and then, a little bit of benign neglect.’
But it’s not just about allowing your children to take risks, it’s also about the fundamental trust that should lie at the heart of your relationship with your children. If you spy on your child, whether it’s reading their diary or monitoring their texts, you are implying that you don’t trust them. Instead, you need to allow them to make their own mistakes, because that trust will meant they’ll turn to you when they need you.
‘As a parent of a teenager I want my daughter to have a real sense of herself as a person in her own right making her own choices,’ says Gill. ‘She knows I am interested in her life and I am there for her if she needs me, but I don’t need to know everything she is doing.’
To quote Dr Leo Buscaglia, US academic and author of Living, Loving And Learning: ‘The person who risks nothing does nothing, has nothing, is nothing and becomes nothing. He may avoid suffering and sorrow, but he simply cannot learn and feel and change and grow and love and live.’ When you think about it this way, the chance of your child stumbling across something nasty in the internet woodpile seems a small price to pay.