Monday, October 5, 2009

Risk paranoia

Not PC has an interesting and thought-provoking blog on "adventure kindergartens" that takes a more rugged approach to outdoor play ( I commented on his blog, but, as you can see, felt the need to blog further on this.

Compared to the stance taken by many towards our children – sometimes at the behest of the Min of Education and the Department of Labour – the idea of allowing our children to partake in adventurous activities that might toughen them up is radical. Gosh, our children may even come home muddy! (Trust me, this seems to be a big thing.) Or, worse, have a scratch! Poor little Jimmy (name changed to protect identity), came so close to death with that scratch! Imagine if it had become infected? He may have died from septicaemia.

Or not. He more probably just learnt that when he jumps from a high bank onto a piece of driftwood, he may struggle to balance and he may fall. Moreover, assuming he lived through the scratch, next time little Jimmy will know that he either has to land differently, or not jump onto an unstable surface.

I can’t really comment on whether parental risk perception has changed from when our grandparents grew up (and I say that because many grandparents seem just as risk averse as the parents, from my observations), but I suspect the risk aversion is now leaning more towards risk-paranoia. I do not mean to use this blog to boast, but my boys have "free range" of our farm – which has many dangers - but with just one clear rule to ride their bikes everywhere other than the driveway (we live on a busy State Highway, so it is not the place to overshoot the driveway). Aside from that, though, they can do as they like and get as dirty as they like, and they seem to be the better for it. They are active and healthy; they understand their strengths and limitations; they have an insatiable interest in the outdoors, and an innate understanding of how humans and animals co-exist in the same environment. In turn, they and I have always had little patience with parents who rush off to the doctor over the tiniest scratch or bruise. Yes, I get many disapproving stares and comments when I take my bruises/band-aided/scratched boys out, but they are still healthy, energetic and, despite appearances at times, well co-ordinated (they quickly learnt how to catch the cricket ball). These are not attributes that are always learnt in the safety of a well-padded playground or in front of the TV or x-box.

However, the thinking these days seems to be that humans are not good at objectively assessing risk. Psychology Today has a great article about how humans commonly misperceive risk, and are afraid of all the wrong things ( Instead of fearing real, permanent damage that may happen during a birth gone wrong, many have a greater fear that little Jimmy might scratch himself, or get dirty. To take this example away from adventurous children for a moment, this thinking extends to not worrying about the catastrophic results of contracting an infectious disease, and instead focuses on the smaller risk of a bad vaccine reaction (or - before you "vaccinations cause autism" people deluge me - the more common, but not severe or permanent risk of a mild complication). It does not help that there is a plethora of books and websites, and bombardment on the news of tragic events, which magnify (intentionally or otherwise) small, hypothetical, or nonexistent risks and minimise real and larger ones.

We are now so used to thinking in terms of preparing for the very worst and the least likely scenarios, that that we do not realise how overbearing and ridiculous our safety measures have become. We are so concerned about safety that we forget what we are giving up for our children: freedom, resourcefulness, learning the value of hindsight and using common sense, or believing that common sense has any value at all.

Instead, we are deferring to government intervention and regulation to spell this out for us. The big danger in this is we think we can avoid all problems, and we end up believing that if something does go wrong, someone is to blame. This is paralysing for parents and children. Yes, I know it is completely normal to worry about your children and to want to protect them at every opportunity – many times I have had to suppress shrieks of horror and look away, and had to restrain my own urge to lock the children in the safety of their bedrooms. However, to do so denies the child the opportunity to learn the thrill of mud, and the art of continuing despite small setbacks.

I look forward to seeing how much support this idea for "adventure kindergartens" gets, especially from the safety wowsers who have dominated playground rules to date. I also wonder if this idea will ever gain traction in countries where civil law suits are more common than they are in New Zealand. The blame and risk paranoia culture is a hard one to break, even if it is for the best.


muz said...

One of the saddest behaviour theorys ruling childrearing in society today results in denying our young the opportunity to discover what they can achieve by way of outcomes particularly physical and as stated above the ability to assess danger. When they grow and attempt to survive in the real world they will need a very good grasp of these two challenges. I accept that the perpetraters of crime against children are, in our enlightened world, allowed too much freedom but FFS teach the young to recognise the dangers and defend themselves from them instead of trying to do it for them. Eventually, in spite of the best intentions the parent will not be there.
O M, I just love your word pictures, I think I went to school with Jimmy in North Canterbury in the early 1950s

Opinionated Mummy said...

Thanks, muz. Jimmy got around. We all knew Jimmy. Last I heard he died a slow and painful death brought on by a bruise when the safety latch on the swing whacked his knee.

Charmaine said...

Thank You for this post. I totally agree with you. My only wish is that my 4 year old daughter took a few more risks. I am not sure if it is something either of us did when she was just walking (take out et etc) or she is just risk adverse.

I am proud that my local play centre is rural and we have a relaxed attitude to the kids taking a few risks. I always believed that we learnt more from the near miss than the lecture about it.

As I see things if we don't allow our kids to take risks now they may take stupider risks later that may actually kill them. My rule of thumb FWIW is if they won't do any harm to themselves and they will learn from the mistake then let them make it.

Opinionated Mummy said...

Thanks, Charmaine.

Your quote: "My only wish is that my 4 year old daughter took a few more risks. I am not sure if it is something either of us did when she was just walking (take out et etc) or she is just risk adverse".

I do understand what you are saying. While I said that my boys love playing in mud and are thrillseekers, it did take my oldest son a lot of encouragement to get into adventurous play. He has always been more cautious and preferred to dip his toe in first, rather than plunging right in like the other two.

I don't think we did anything differently with him. I prefer to say that kids are just hard wired in their own particular way!

libertyscott said...

Absolutely this is so important. I was overly protected as a child, didn't take risks, took a few years before I'd climb things because I was constantly scared of falling. I had a chronic fear of heights, which was absurd.

People don't want children suffering severe injuries, but fearing other adults and being so protected is so destructive.

Sus said...

OM, I was a Nanny in a past life. Looked after a dozen small kids in different places & loved it. Came into contact with loads more as a result.

I observed that it was common for the eldest children - when very young - to be more cautious, shy and wary.

Unlike their younger and often bolder, more adventurous siblings, they have nobody to follow, having to forge their own way -- which, ironically, can end up standing them in good stead later on.

Does that make sense?

Opinionated Mummy said...

Sus, absolutely makes sense. Thanks.