Living in a world of risk

Thursday, 28 May 2020

The weekend weather was wild and as I went walking I was watching a group of boys hanging on to the chain that surrounds the beach pool as the force of the waves washed over them. Apparently, this is called ‘chain-surfing’! The power of the waves regularly threw them back into the pool and carried them to the other end. In fact, it was highlighted on the evening news. On the evening before, a group of teenagers were similarly jumping off the rocks at Curl Curl into the water timing their entry to perfection so that the wave did not carry them back onto the rocks. They were having a magnificent time and many a parent would recall in their day, the freedom and exhilaration of doing things that were risky and perhaps just shy of dangerous. 

These were young teenagers and probably just used to meeting up with friends on the weekend without being accompanied by a parents - itself a risky venture for many. There are so many inherent risks in what we do but it would be reasonable to assume parents have so restricted kids from being able to risk-take that generations have borne the consequences of overprotection.
 In one of Gross’ articles he states ‘not all risks are the same. ‘There are a number of reasons why today’s generation experience less freedom than previous generations. These include busy after-school schedules leaving less time for wandering and the centralisation of shops and parks reducing opportunities for walking. However, it’s the perception that the world is a more dangerous place that seems to be most pertinent. This is despite there being little evidence to suggest that stranger danger is on the rise. The wish to keep kids safe is now paramount for many adults, but it comes at the expense of children’s and young people’s natural developmental need for unpredictable experiences away from constant adult supervision. We need to be careful we don’t throw all risk into the same basket. We need to separate risk-taking in terms of unsafe/unhealthy risks (e.g. playing chicken with cars on busy roads) and safe/developmental risks (e.g. using traffic lights to cross busy roads). It’s evident that children who are exposed to safe risk-taking usually are less fearful, less anxious and more able to take on new challenges and experiences’.

For parents, the inability to relinquish our hold has come about through a fear of predation or abduction and a child being seriously injured or a fear of a child being killed. For those who manage children, the fear has been exacerbated by legal culpability as we live in a world of risk compliance. 

Many have been living life as a ‘helicopter’ or ‘lawnmower’ parent. Helicopter parents, as the name suggests, spend a lot of time hovering. They always stay close to their children, ready to swoop in and direct and reduce risk, help or protect (usually before it is needed). Lawnmower parents are one step ahead of their children, smoothing their path and making sure nothing gets in their way in such a way that there is simply no risk because this has been removed.

Risky play does not mean placing children in grave danger. Risky play allows children to test limits and solve problems. And, yes, this includes learning what happens when they overstretch themselves and fall. And what seems like a risk to one is often less so to another.

Have a look at the photos below. I have no doubt your reaction is the same as mine - unprintable! By the standards of yesteryear, this was an acceptable playground - not the litigation-proof play areas that kids climb on today.

No softfall, no limits to height, no worries!! 

In 1989, at one of our camps, a teacher and I took kids down a very steep hillside so we could reach the river below. The kids could not stop their sliding other than to occasionally hold on to trees that protruded upright from the hill. Their shorts were filthy through the sliding. Coming back up was challenging and frightening in equal measure and when they reached the summit, they were beaming as they felt a sense of accomplishment. In fact, they did not stop talking about the adventure all afternoon and evening. 

Would we allow our kids to hang tight on the chain and be bowled over by enormous waves? Would a teacher today allow kids to slide down a hillside and potentially lose control? The answer is a definite “no” to the latter and depending on the parents, a “maybe” or a “no” for the former. Institutions have become far more risk-averse than parents. 

We want kids to take some risks - to climb trees and to go out with friends (at the right age), hang upside down, jump from heights etc. We have given them phones and dropped them off and collected them at any time, but we still feel uncomfortable about the notion of risk. In fact, we probably don’t even know how to define ‘acceptable’ risk. The notion that there is some level of risk that everyone will find acceptable is a difficult idea to reconcile and yet, without such a baseline, how can it ever be possible to set guideline values and standards, given that life can never be risk free?

Falling off onto concrete and good luck as the rotational momentum drops!!

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