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 with Truman 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.