Childhood at risk

2008-06-16 00:00

A local father reminisces: “I grew up in Hilton when it was still a village with dirt roads. We used to spend all day riding our bikes, fishing in the quarry dam and doing some pretty naughty things. We had a huge fun.” Now that he is the father of an eight-year-old boy, I ask if he allows his son the same kind of risky fun that he enjoyed. His response is immediate and emphatic: “Never. I would never let him do the kind of things I did.”

Research shows that many parents are now more protective towards their children than their own parents were and less willing to allow them to engage in risky activities. This worldwide phenomenon has reportedly changed the landscape of children’s activities over the past 20 years. Many modern parents are described as over-protective, over-anxious and “risk averse”. The most extreme have been called “helicopter parents” — those who constantly hover near their children to make sure they are safe. This over-protectiveness has been blamed on general “post-9/11 anxiety” that creates an overwhelming concern for safety, general crime and high-profile crimes against children, like the abduction of British girl Madeleine McCann in Portugal. In the United States particularly, parents and other caregivers also want to guard against legal action caused by an injury to a child.

Even an organisation the aim of which is to prevent accidents says that modern parents are too risk averse. The British Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) says hospital admission statistics in Britain show a drop in the number of children under 15 injured in tree-related incidents, but a rise in the number of repetitive strain injuries (RSI) in the same age group. The statement said that more and more children of the “PlayStation generation” are treated for repetitive wrist strain injuries because they are confined indoors playing computer and TV games.

A RoSPA spokesman said: “Climbing trees and falling out of them is all part of growing up and having small injuries helps children learn about risks. It’s a good thing to try to equip children and young people and help them make informed decisions about the risks that they take.”

In the United States there is a new website called Free Range Kids, started by a New York Times columnist and her husband who created a controversy by allowing their nine-year-old son to ride the city’s subway system alone. Some people criticised the couple for endangering their son’s life, while others supported them for allowing him to develop his independence and self-sufficiency. Teachers, medical professionals and sociologists who support them say that “helicopter” parenting needs to give way to a more balanced form of parenting that allows children more independence and risk-taking.

This is arguably one of parents’ most important tasks: to help their children learn how to recognise and manage risks because life is risky. Learning itself requires risk or being willing to make mistakes. We learn by experiencing success and failures and adjusting our behaviour accordingly. Taking risks gives children insight into their own strengths and weaknesses and how the world works. Psychology recognises it as a normal and essential part of child development and for teenagers, a critical part of discovering and developing their identity. Experts also warn that children who grow up without learning how to handle or even face risks will not be adequately prepared for leadership positions in business or civic life.

Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder says: “We have begun to lose sight of the notion of comparative risk. We are dangerously close to becoming a society that is so risk averse that we drain the lake because one child drowns.” Louv says this attitude actually puts larger society at risk because, “with no lake, no child would learn to swim.”

RoSPA says the aim should not be to make things “as safe as possible” for children, but “as safe as they need to be”.

The headmaster of a coeducational primary and pre-primary school in the city agreed that parents of pupils in the school are very protective of their children, particularly pre-primary children. “We have had to adapt to parents’ anxiety. For example, when we take children on an outing, we send the parents an sms when we arrive at our destination. We do the same if we are going to get back late.” He lamented the fact that over-protective parents are often too quick to intervene in issues that arise at school. “In years gone by, parents would support the teacher in something like an academic or disciplinary issue. Now they usually take their child’s side, and often in front of the child, which is not helpful. They do their children a huge disservice by shielding them from the consequences of their actions.”

He also expressed concern that parents’ anxiety can translate into putting pressure on their children to do well. “Many children are under huge strain from their parents’ expectations to perform both academically and in sport. Sometimes parents need to stand in the shadows and just watch their children, in the pre-primary years particularly.”

On the issue of parents’ intervening and shielding children from consequences, Mark Emerson, headmaster of Cowan House Prep School, said it is the school’s policy to allow pupils to experience the consequences of their actions and inactions, and their speech. “We also encourage parents to do this as it is critical to children’s development. If they don’t learn these lessons when young, it is a shock to learn later that their parents are actually powerless to intervene. We see it sometimes with parents who wait until their children are at high school to allow them to suffer consequences.

“We want pupils to make mistakes — which is what risk-taking is about — and learn from them. That is why we give them responsibility at an early age with important functions like lighting and sound for school productions. We would rather the pupils did it and learnt from their mistakes than allow an adult to do it perfectly.”

He said the school also takes pupils on outdoor adventure outings to give them the opportunity to be with a group of their peers and engage in risk-taking activities. “We have to manufacture opportunities for children to do this because concerns for child safety constrain children’s lives so much today.”

The school counsellor at a local independent girls’ senior school said: “We have helicopter parents who are driven by their own anxieties and desire to be absolutely brilliant parents. We encourage them to strike a better balance and practise ‘benign neglect’. They need to let their children find things out for themselves. At the same time, if parents go too far the other way, children do not learn about accepted behaviour and social norms. They can battle to fit in and can be described as ‘very different’, which can be very painful for adolescents.

“We also believe in creating opportunities for girls to challenge themselves and take risks in a controlled environment. Every form goes on an outdoor adventure weekend and some involve team-building activities and life skills instruction.”

Help your children take risks


• respect risk-taking as developmentally normal;

• monitor risk-taking for safety;

• assert control in a calm and encouraging manner;

• play down children’s unwarranted anxiety;

• expose children to new experiences;

• help them to assess an opportunity and make an informed choice;

• empower them to weigh up the relative benefit or harm of different choices;

• help them to understand the consequences of their decisions and actions; and

• ensure that they take risks within socially acceptable boundaries.


• make choices and decisions for your children;

• look for danger around every corner; or

• allow your children to be over-dependent on you.

— Edgemead Primary School, Cape Town.

Mothers worldwide unite

Patti Quinton

South African mothers have joined mothers worldwide in expressing their concerns about the future of childhood, a global study has revealed.

Mothers believe that children today do not experience things in the way they were once allowed to and 86% of South African mothers believe they “should be protecting childhood for my child”. Mothers feel that children do not have enough opportunities for unstructured experiences and play.

Commissioned by Unilever, the global White Paper titled Giving Our Children the Right to be Children is a result of interviews with 1 500 mothers in 10 countries. For the majority of the countries surveyed there were similar patterns of agreement with 79% of mothers agreeing that “People in my country have forgotten the importance of learning through play”. The figure among South African mothers increased to 84,3% of those interviewed.

Liz Senior, occupational therapist and founder of the Clamber Club, agrees, saying the research is indicative of how overly structured children’s lives have become. Senior is one of five local experts called on for their views regarding the White Paper.

“There is less and less free time for children simply to play,” Senior says. “Parents have an instinctual knowledge of what is good for their children and the results of the research are very relevant. I think we are reaching a turning point that is universal. We all want our children to be children again.”

She adds: “Movement and exercise play an important role in the learning process of a child, from a perceptual and academic perspective as well as physically, emotionally and socially. Economics has become such that both parents have to work, so less individual time is spent with children when they are in critical learning periods. Many children are in schools or crèches from early in the morning until late. They may not be getting the individual attention that is needed when a child is two or three years old.

“Children often suffer from overstimulation with no time for reflection — there is such hype around the fact that our children need to be stimulated to be successful, that an important aspect for healthy growth is forgotten. Just as adults need time out to reflect, so do our children. Children need quiet time to play on their own, time to play in an unstructured way so as to problem solve and to reflect. Many of our children are in school all day, which is a noisy and busy environment. This can sometimes lead to sensory overload.”

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