The ‘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.