Moving on from the zero risk childhood

Girl climbing a treeThe ‘cotton wool kid’ – cosseted, watched over, insulated from all possible harm – has become a potent symbol of our fear-filled, risk-averse times. Across the rich nations, children are statistically safer today than at any time in history [pdf link]. But the insidious question ‘what if…?’ crowds out common sense, and clouds our good judgement.

Parents have a tough time navigating this territory. Schools, early years settings, play and childcare services have an even tougher time. They are caught between children’s ever-growing appetite for experience and their parents’ fears and anxieties.

The first step on the path to enlightenment about risk is to accept that there is simply no such thing as a risk-free environment. Did you know that in the USA between 1990 and 2007, around 300 children have died as a result of falling furniture (typically, television sets in their own home)?

Every game you play, every craft activity you run, every play area you use, every table and chair in your room is a potential source of harm. You are already in the game of balancing risks against benefits, even if you don’t see it that way. So every time you talk about an activity or venue being ‘safe’ what you really mean is ‘safe enough’; safe enough for there to be every likelihood that children will enjoy the experiences on offer without coming to serious harm.

That phrase ‘serious harm’ is crucial. Getting hurt – physically or emotionally – and then recovering is part and parcel of childhood. Children need the chance to make mistakes and learn from them, as long as they can pick themselves up, dust themselves down and move on – with a caring grown-up to wipe way the tears, if needs be.

In fact, these minor childhood upsets are so vital that if they never happened in your club, you’d be doing something wrong. Yes, inspectors, regulators and insurers sometimes appear to expect zero-accident settings – but they work in the real world too – and what is more, some of them are arguing for a more balanced approach. Yes, some parents are excessively anxious – but not all. Moreover, most parents want their kids to grow up confident and capable. Getting to grips with everyday challenges is central to living a rich, meaningful and fulfilled life.

In our over-anxious culture, risk should be at the heart of your parenting, your setting, and your thinking. Have you managed to move on from the zero risk childhood? And if so, how did you do it?

A version of this article was published in Nursery World in January 2006. Reproduced with permission.

13 responses to “Moving on from the zero risk childhood

  1. “In fact, these minor childhood upsets are so vital that if they never happened in your club, you’d be doing something wrong.”

    Well said, it’s one of my favourite points when training playworkers.

    It helps to swing the discussion away from ‘dratted jobsworths and pesky forms’ to ‘how can we articulate our worth to stakeholders?’ (apologies for shorthand use of dodgy managerial jargon).

  2. “You are already in the game of balancing risks against benefits, even if you don’t see it that way” Nicely put. There’s an important shift in perception in there, parents are not parenting in a zero risk situation and never have been. I find it interesting how most parents I know become skilled quite quickly at judging risks and benefits in home environments but struggle to do so objectively in less familiar territory. Also the reasons FOR risk never seem as well articulated, amplified or transmitted as the reasons against. Your writing inspired me to blog about my own reasons for NOT wrapping my kids in fluffy white straitjackets, just to remind me to drop the protective instinct a little more

  3. Arthur, Debbie, Stuart – thanks for the thumbs-ups. Stuart – always nice to hear that my writings have an impact. I like the look of your blog – you’ve been flying the flag for adventure yourself for quite a while now!

  4. Our two were adopted at 7.5 and 6, and the elder had had a traumatic enough life that he was, in the words of his social worker, “afraid of his own shadow”. So moving on from zero risk was not so much a matter of overcoming our own fears of our children being harmed but that if we wanted to do anything outside (and my wife and I “do” the outdoors as our main set of hobbies) we’d have to use a continuing combination of gentle sticks and carrots to get him out of his built-in “zero risk” approach.
    And that’s moved things a lot and having just turned 10 he’s very, very different (and enormously happier). Still overly wary of a lot of things but he trusts us not to get him maimed now and the definition of “adventure” has far fewer restrictions on what he’ll try. He’s still in a box of his own making, but at least he’s trying (and succeeding) to push the walls outwards.

    His wee sister is an interesting contrast, where we’re more trying to hold her back as she has a bit more confidence than is justified. But that just shows it is a balance.

  5. For our kids, it isn’t about zero risk, it’s about teaching them risk management. Letting them fail when the risks are low so they can learn their own thresholds, figure out what risks are where, and what to do when it goes ‘south.’ Otherwise… what happens when we let them out of the house as teens if they haven’t figured out for themselves what they can do and what they can’t do (in terms of not getting hurt), what is risky and what isn’t risky? Every person is different and what they can do without getting hurt really varies. I can’t figure that out for them, they have to figure it out themselves.

  6. When our teens are still very young we don’t want anything bad to happen that is why we parents nurture them the best we can. But when they grow older some parents don’t get to follow up their activities thinking that the nurturing they have given is enough to keep them from being at-risk to harmful activities. It is really advisable to keep on track of our kids now and then even especially when they become teens.

  7. Peter, Jean, Will – thanks for the comments. Peter and Jean – it is true that we all have our own ‘risk thermostats’. One thing we need to do is to allow children to work out where theirs is set – as well as giving them experiences that help them to work out how to deal with everyday challenges and so perhaps foster some recalibration.
    Will – even at a young age, I think children have to have a taste of freedom and the space to take a degree of responsibility for themselves – though of course as parents, we should also have in mind what they are ready for. By the way, I have removed the link from your comment, as in my view, it was not relevant. There is a fine line between links that add information, and links that do not (and are perhaps there for other purposes) but in my judgement, your link was on the wrong side of that line.

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