With summer on the way, we should let children play outdoors – without wrapping them up in cotton wool – and let them take risks, says Liz Fraser
It seemed as if it would never happen, but this week the weather gods finally woke up and answered the desperate prayers of a shivering, vitamin-D deprived nation, and delivered a heavenly dose of unbroken sunshine.
T-shirts were thrown on, dusty sandals were unearthed, barbecues were lit and we all got out there to enjoy the sunshine. With the warmer weather and longer days comes, of course, a wish to be outdoors, and this is especially true for children. They want to run around in freshly mown parks, climb trees laden with cherry blossom and whizz around on their bikes and scooters.
And their parents immediately start to panic about all the things that could go wrong if they grant such freedoms to their adventurous children.
A park is full of strangers who might harm their child, they might fall out of that tree, a bike is a broken arm just waiting to happen, teeth will be knocked out if they fall off their scooter… Bad Things might happen.
This (perfectly understandable) concern about the welfare of our children seems, in recent years, to have grown into a semi-hysteria, fuelled by exaggerated media reports of injury, abduction and freak accidents happening to children in the most unthreatening of environments, made all the worse by horror stories that go viral on social media.
The result is a generation of parents who are terrified of Bad Things happening to their children, and children who are so over-protected that they can’t breathe. They are growing up in the ‘safe’ glow of a TV screen, the protective casing of cars and the cosy shelter of permanent monitoring.
But it’s not cosy. Because protecting children from everything that can possibly go wrong doesn’t teach them anything of the real world, and gives them no taste of failure, pain or disappointment.
Clinical psychologist and broadcaster Professor Tanya Byron is concerned about the clinical effects of not letting our children take risks.
‘Anxiety disorders in children are rising,’ she says. ‘We are living in a risk-averse society where children are raised in virtual captivity due to parental paranoia about risk, over-inflated by the media. More and more children are now over-protected to the degree that they understand neither risk nor the value of failure as a learning experience.’
Clinical psychologist Linda Blair, whose book The Key To Calm is published next year, sees risk-taking as a valuable experience and even as something pleasurable, but she stops short of saying that failure is ‘good’.
‘Cushioning children so that they can’t solve problems in the real world is deeply unhelpful,’ she says, ‘but failure per se isn’t a positive thing for children.’
There is a misplacement of emphasis about failure and success in our culture. We know from the recent Young Minds study that the most important thing to do for a child is to praise their effort and not whether they succeed or not. ‘If you only praise successful results you set them up for low self-confidence and for never taking a chance. Taking a chance, having a go, is what makes life taste good!’
So what would Professor Byron say to nervous parents who really believe it’s dangerous to let their children out alone or to walk to school unaccompanied that would encourage them to let their kids take small risks?
‘Anxious parents lead to anxious children who are unable to assess and manage risk,’ she says. ‘I would urge parents to remember that this makes them vulnerable in the real world, which is full of risk and challenge. As parents we were raised in a more relaxed culture that allowed us to live outside and experience the world. By denying this to our children in a managed way we are denying them important life-skill development. Where are the free-range kids? We are breeding a generation that’s afraid of life, afraid of interaction with men, afraid of failure. Life is tough, and kids need to be robust and assertive in their handling of it.’
I remember a top-grade girl in my class at school who had never failed at anything in her life. At the age of 17 she flunked her driving test completely. This was her first taste of failure – she all but fell to pieces. And such was her fear of failing again, that she was unable to take her test again for years.
It’s much healthier to learn to cope with failure gradually, to fall out of trees and get a few frights, and gather up some grazes and scars through childhood, so that when the bigger disappointments come along, we are ready to face them.
For Blair, failure is a useful time for reflection.
‘When we succeed we often feel smug and self-satisfied, and move on,’ she says. ‘But when we fail we sit and think. We evaluate things, and learn something of ourselves. Children need to do this, too. To learn to get back up, and try again.’
And, she says, there’s one very positive thing bear in mind. ‘Life isn’t all that dangerous – just look at how many of us keeping getting up every morning!’
I hope more parents will let their children go this summer, and let them get out there and learn a little about the world… without the cotton wool padding and the fear.
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