Forget cotton wool! Tell your kids to climb the tallest tree they can find
22:33 GMT, 5 September 2012
22:41 GMT, 5 September 2012
As I looked out of my home office onto my garden yesterday afternoon, I beheld a scene which would make even the most hardened health and safety officer turn white with fear.
It was the last sunny day of the school holidays. At one end of the garden, my seven-year-old daughter Clio was bouncing joyously on the trampoline — and could theoretically have taken off at any moment since it’s not surrounded by 8ft of safety netting.
At the other end, Lily, ten, was perching perilously on the high back wall, laughing and joking with a friend on the other side.
Outdoor girls: Tanith Carey with her two daughters
Several times this summer, Lily has disappeared into the gardens behind us and not been seen for several hours, despite the fact she was neither fitted with a global positioning device, nor had I run criminal record checks on any of the neighbours.
That said, apparently I am taking the name of the hard-working officials at the Health and Safety Executive in vain.
This week, the watchdogs claimed they are not, after all, responsible for creating today’s risk-averse society in which the biggest challenge children face is finding replacement batteries for their Wii remote.
In a statement widely regarded as ironic, the HSE claim their rulings have been ‘wrongly cited’ as a reason to deny children play opportunities — and that kids should actually be exposed to a degree of risk to prepare them for the realities of everyday life.
The trouble is that even if Health and Safety officials are saying it’s nothing to do with them, many parents still confuse protectiveness with good parenting.
Anxiety has become a contagion. The reasoning goes: ‘If so-and-so’s mum’s worried, maybe I should start worrying too.’
Making a big deal of ensuring the world is a safer place for children has also become the latest competitive sport for many mothers and fathers.
I still recall a painful afternoon with an uber-anxious mum who’d come for a play-date with her two-year-old. In my house, the two main rooms are knocked through — and from her vantage-point, she couldn’t see behind one of the alcoves.
Every time her son stepped out of her eye-line, she’d yell: ‘Say Mamma, Billie’, to reassure herself that her child had not come to a terrible end in the nanosecond since she’d last set eyes on him. The poor boy was so tethered by her anxiety, he might as well been wearing a dog lead.
Who hasn’t been near the climbing frame or at the pool-side as parents compete to see who can utter the most ‘Be careful, darlings’
Little do these parents realise that their entreaties have the opposite effect, since research shows that the more parents interrupt, the more accidents youngsters have.
Just a generation ago, children were seen as rugged little tykes, best left to their own devices.
But somehow our outrage at the banning of conker fights by litigation-fearing schools and local authorities has not just been forgotten — it’s come to be seen as common sense.
The idea of packing kids off to the park and not seeing them again until tea-time has become a nostalgic memory found only in Famous Five books.
Health and safety beware! Taneth's seven-year-old daughter joyfully bounces on the trampoline (posed by models)
Of course, some parents’ worries are justified. A huge increase in cars means children can no longer play as safely on the street, and the breakdown of our communities means there is rarely a caring neighbour to keep an eye out.
But even with these changes, our fears have become irrational. One in ten parents don’t let their children play outside because it’s dirty, according to the Children’s Society, even though some exposure to bacteria is crucial to building the immune system.
The result of this mounting neurosis is that one-in-five seven to 14-year-olds now spends less than an hour outdoors every week. Surely we don’t need David Attenborough to tell us that, just like lion cubs, children learn to survive through play.
Deep down, don’t we know they develop strength and co-ordination by skipping, jumping and climbing trees, and imagination and team-work by making mud-pies and building dens
So why do we raise our children in captivity, when it does exactly the opposite of what it’s meant to do
150 children aged ten or under were admitted to hospitals in England after intentional self-harm in 2010
While parents kid themselves that cosseting children makes them feel well cared-for, it actually makes our children think they are incapable.
Yet still we condemn them to a battery-hen existence where the only adventures they have are of the virtual kind. In the process, the irony is that the most dangerous places of all have become our own homes.
So many parents fret about falls that half of seven to 12-years-olds are banned from climbing trees.
Yet according to a study by the National Trust, three times as many children are hospitalised each year for falling out of bed as for tumbling from treetops.
Risk averse society: One of the biggest risks, it is joked, is for a child to find replacement batteries for their Wii remote
By sticking our children in front of screens, so we know where they are, we put them at risk of encountering sights far more damaging than any they are likely to meet in the outside world.
While 73 per cent of seven to 12-year-olds surf the internet unsupervised, according to a study by Play England, 42 per cent are not allowed to play in their local park without an adult.
Yet a grazed knee heals quickly and is nothing compared to the long-lasting scars left on young minds by viewing violent, degrading porn, according to neurologists.
Dr Amanda Gummer, a play and parenting psychologist who set up the goodtoyguide.com, has seen how pervading parenting trends have also forced children indoors.
She believes parental guilt about working and a determination to push our children harder than ever have led many of us to believe that any spare moment we have with our children should be spent hot-housing them.
Dr Gummer adds: ‘Mothers enrol their children in baby massage and baby French the moment they are born with the expectation it will turn them into geniuses, but forget to schedule in the most important learning time of all — playtime.’
So far Lily and Clio have never suffered anything more serious than a scuffed knee, no matter how perilous their activities might look to the Health and Safety brigade.
But I know if I did say: ‘Get down from there’ or ‘Be careful’, I’d be saying it for my sake, not theirs.
n Tanith Carey is the author of Where Has My Little Girl Gone How To Protect Your Daughter From Growing Up Too Soon, price 7.99.