Out of sight, out of mind?

Boys climbing a tree

Image from St Joseph’s OSHC, QLD, Australia

I was recently told about an article on tree-climbing, by an Australian after-school service. It rightly makes the case that the benefits of this activity clearly outweigh the risks. The video footage certainly reinforces this, showing the children’s appetite for the experience, and their obvious competence. And yet, even though I think that what St Joseph’s is doing here is terrific, something in the clip jarred with me. It was the very presence of the grown-ups. Such a contrast from my own childhood memories of climbing trees.

Everyone agrees that children need to learn how to look after themselves as they grow up. And everyone agrees that we can’t expect them to handle everything life might throw at them. So we need to strike a balance: to manage children’s exposure to risks, not eliminate the risks altogether.

When it comes to risks like tree-climbing, it’s easy to make the scene safer by interposing some watchful grown-ups. The challenge comes when we really untie the apron strings and remove the adults from the picture altogether.

We know that kids have to escape the adult gaze sooner or later. But we dread what might happen when they do. Keeping children under surveillance is in danger of becoming a national obsession. Nursery webcams, GPS systems in mobile phones, internet monitoring software, omnipresent CCTV: it is not kids watching Big Brother that worries me; it is Big Brother watching them.

What worries me most about child safety is not that kids are being deprived of the joys of tree-climbing. It is that our adult fears – fears for children, and fears of children – leave them taking the lead role in their very own Truman Show. Just as withTruman Burbank, this denies them the chance to take any real responsibility for themselves and their safety. It means that when, as teenagers, they eventually gain some freedom, they will find it harder to cope with the everyday ups and downs of life.

Perhaps the real moral from our childhood memories is this: children simply need more time and space away from the anxious gaze of grown-ups.

A version of this piece was published on the Guardian website in 2006.

9 responses to “Out of sight, out of mind?

  1. All I know is that from the age of five my parents never hovered over me as I played, not tree climbing or anything else. Yet I always knew at least one of them would be at home if ever I needed them. They taught me from the age of two to be risk aware. How do I know? I still have the memory of my first lesson. Call it benevolent neglect or anything you want. My childhood was brilliant and I will be forever grateful.
    The subject was discussed on Loose Women today when one of them declared she would hate her child to reach 14 and still never have crossed the road by themselves. Yes things have changed from my day but one thing hasn’t – every child needs opportunities to grow up, learning life lessons along the way.

  2. Agree entirely. My first tree-climbing escapade came aged 19 months, when a ladder propped up against the apple tree in the garden proved just too tempting. Parents? Dad upstairs helping Mum deliver my little sister. I’ve been an ardent tree-climber ever since :)

  3. I can see your point about the presence of the adults, but then I think back to my own tree-climbing as a child 50 years ago and I remember that my first tree climbing was definitely done under the watchful and helpful gaze of my father, who would advise me on potential handholds and hazards. The support I got meant that I could then go on and climb trees safely without my father’s presence – I knew about keeping three points of contact at all times, about testing branches for strength before putting weight on them, and so on.

    Admittedly I was a lot younger than the children in the video (I have photos of me climbing trees as a 2 year old) but it occurs to me that they may never have had those first experiences of guided tree-climbing – to me they seem very hesitant about climbing an easy tree that I would have been up like a monkey as a 4 year old. So maybe the adult presence is appropriate, if it allows them to develop the skills necessary for safe tree climbing when adults aren’t present. Sort of remedial tree climbing lessons!

    Hopefully the children will take what they’ve learned and apply it to real tree-climbing play, without adults present; it’s quite possible that without this experience they might never climb at all. And it’s definitely a step in the right direction and I congratulate the OSHC workers for having the guts to encourage tree climbing – in the present “safety at all costs” climate in the Australian care sector this is an astonishing step forward when you consider that many child care centres ban any activity that has the slightest risk of injury, no matter how minor.

    I know centres that have banned all ride-on toys, that have removed swings & slides, that won’t go on outings to any place that has any water feature, that have removed all climbing equipment over 50cm high, that forbid rough & tumble play, that have banned balls unless they are made from foam, that forbid children from using string, let alone rope .. the list of insane “safety rules” seems to grow daily. I’m hoping that we are going to see that reversed as the new national child care regulations specifically encourage risky play, but it’s only going to happen if brave workers like these lead the way.

  4. I agree with Alec, above. Guided first attempts can serve as a good skill-building, or a ‘safety net’ for later risk-taking.

    During my own childhood, I was the youngest child and so followed along with the others running around the neighbourhood, playing in the woods, climbing trees, crossing the street, etc without adult supervision, but with my parents’ guidelines well-implanted in my mind. However, as a teen and as a young adult venturing into the world, I was naive, cautious, and not really all that good at dealing with failed attempts or so-called bumps in the road. I had an independent attitude but lacked self-confidence. So I don’t believe that leaving the child to take risks in a natural environment without supervision is all it takes to help a child develop confidence and resilience.

    One thing I am on the fence on, as a parent of young children, is how much time away from adults is the right amount and at what ages does it have the most benefit? Perhaps an ongoing, respectful relationship with a caring adult is even more important than being given more freedom to take risks.

    Thanks for the discussion.

  5. “Perhaps an ongoing, respectful relationship with a caring adult is even more important than being given more freedom to take risks.”

    Perhaps it is, but there’s no reason for the two to be mutually exclusive!

  6. Thanks for all the comments so far. Neil – you have reminded me of a grainy piece of video footage I took years ago of a toddler in a museum garden with his dad. The toddler toddled off, the dad kept a weather eye out, and the toddler toddled back. Simple, really.
    Alec, Jackie – I didn’t say that unsupervised experiences are ‘all it takes.’ My piece isn’t a criticism of St Joseph’s approach – quite the opposite. Sometimes, we grown-ups do need to scaffold children’s learning and growth. What I’m worried about is that too often, our response to safety fears about children’s play, risk-taking and exploration is to introduce watchful adults. While *sometimes* this may be right, I don’t think it is *always* right. Because childhood is, amongst other things, a journey, with a degree of everyday independence and autonomy as its destination (hopefully).
    Peter – I agree. It’s not a question of the relative importance of caring/support versus freedom. It’s a question of the right mix of the two.

  7. Pingback: Benign neglect: a vignette | Rethinking Childhood

  8. Undertaking research in early years settings in Murcia (Spain) and Kent highlighted quite a difference in the role of the watchful adult. At first I was surprised (at times shocked) by the lack of adult involvement/watchfulness in children’s outdoor play in the Murcian settings. This was in contrast to the constant ‘watchfulness’ in the Kent ones. This was also underpinned by the difference in ratio of children to adults but was additionally linked to practitioners’ intentions and curricular advice. However, comparing the two was a useful reflective exercise on the issue of ‘benign neglect’.

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