How should schools, nurseries, kindergartens and other education, childcare and play services respond to anxious parents? I was asked this question recently by an Australian early years educator who heard me speak a couple of months ago.
She explained that her setting’s outdoor space was very small and sparse, but that it was located in some more extensive school grounds. She was keen to take the children into the grounds, so they could play games that they do not have room for in their own yard. She wanted to do this, not only because of the extra space, but also to prepare the children for the transition to the ‘big school’ that many of them would soon be joining. She continues:
Unfortunately, one parent has refused permission for their child to have anything to do with the school, because “she’s not going to that school next year”. I’ve spoken to my managers, and there’s nothing I can do about one parent preventing all the children from going to the school. I am not able to ask the child to stay home on those days. I am not able to leave her with one staff member at the setting. I am not able to leave her at the school office. And when I appealed to the mother she said that it is my problem.
It is amazing that one parent can determine what all the other children will be able to do! I asked my managers if they could make it a compulsory policy from next year’s enrolments that parents give permission before enrolling to access the school grounds. However, they said no, as I am supposed to engage with our community, according to regulations.
They did say they would look into it, as they hadn’t come across a parent like this before. I said they should, because there’s always one parent! If a parent doesn’t give permission then it’s certainly to their child’s detriment, but to affect everybody else’s rights to go on an excursion or to do an activity that is deemed beneficial and educational is not right.
Note the real problem here. It is not parents as a group. It is not even that some parents are more risk averse than others. Yes, some parents may be overprotective. But many are not – they actively try to give their children opportunities to have everyday adventures, to experience risks and to take some responsibility for themselves. The real problem is that because of the policies and procedures of the setting, the views of a single parent are enough to derail things.
Parents, like the rest of us, are on a spectrum when it comes to their attitude to risk. At one end of this spectrum, some parents apparently feel the need to protect their children through against all possible harm, even the harm from crawling on a hardwood floor.
Many parents are at the other end of the spectrum, and are relaxed about allowing their children to take a bit of responsibility for themselves as they grow up. Some, for instance, are happy to allow their children the chance to complete the North Face of the Doorframe – though note the parent’s comment on the video: “This was undertaken by a highly trained three year old who was well aware of the risks involved.”
All too often, systems and procedures effectively give risk averse parents a veto. Schools, services and settings feel under pressure to set their benchmark at the level of the most anxious parent. And as the anecdote above shows, more often than not, the result is that all children lose out on some vital learning experiences.
My take-home message to services – and especially service managers – is simple. If you want to allow all children the chance to spread their wings a little, you cannot set your bar at the level of the most anxious parent. In the nicest possible way, you need to be assertive with the ones at the fearful end of the spectrum. Of course, confrontation is not helpful, but they should not be allowed to think that they have a veto on what you offer to children.
How worried are you about the influence of anxious parents? What messages to parents get about your values – for instance, in your publicity materials, or your mission statement – and how well do these values square up with your practice? Have you succeeded in winning the more risk averse over to the idea of expanding children’s horizons? Or do your procedures get in the way? I would love to hear your views and ideas.