Today I took a phone call from a television news channel asking me to comment on this Youtube video.
The clip is not for the faint-hearted. It shows 22-year-old James Kingston climbing up a tower crane in Southampton, then hanging by one hand off one of the crane’s bars, with a 250 foot drop beneath him. The reporter wanted me to condemn Kingston’s actions as likely to encourage copycat behaviour and put children at risk. The call made me think: what is going on when children or young people carry out acts of extreme danger, and how should we respond?
I politely declined to be interviewed, in part because I did not want to be part of a kneejerk reaction, and was not comfortable with my allotted role in a media narrative that seemed to me to be both tired and exploitative. Mainstream media is audience-driven, and there is more than a little hypocrisy in a storyline that goes “hey millions of viewers, look here at this person whose actions are likely to be watched – thanks in part to our coverage – and copied by kiddies!”
Nonetheless, the reporter’s question prompted me to think about the whole business of how adults respond to children and young people’s thrill-seeking activities, especially in an age when documenting and sharing experiences online is becoming ever more commonplace. What do we say – for instance – when we hear about children who want to make daredevil dashes across railway lines?
I pick the railway line example because it was raised in a ‘safety awareness’ lesson at my own daughter’s primary school a few years ago when she was 12. My daughter told me of the revealing, and contrasting, reactions of her fellow students to the grainy CCTV footage and stern warnings from the safety educator. Some had no illusions about the dangers involved, and no interest in doing anything similar. However, the appetites of a few were clearly whetted by the videos (and yes, they were all boys). It does not seem implausible to me to argue that the lesson, although aimed at keeping children safer, may have had the outcome of increasing the likelihood that some of them would take part in the activity.
The boys’ reaction cannot just be put down to forbidden fruit or reverse psychology. It speaks of an appetite for adventure and excitement that is familiar to anyone who spends time with children out of doors (and anyone who had a free-range childhood). As previous posts of mine have shared, this appetite is strong and varied. Indeed ‘deep play’ (play involving risky or potentially life-threatening experiences) is recognised as a key ‘play type’ by playworkers, drawing on the work of Bob Hughes.
Don’t get me wrong here: I am not arguing for a laissez-faire approach. We adults, who in general have more experience of the world and its hazards, have a responsibility towards children, who in general have less experience.
Sometimes, children need clear messages and prohibitions. For children below a certain age, the right message to give them about roads (to take one hazard) is simply, ‘don’t cross them on your own’. It does not matter how much they might think it would be fun to run out in front of cars (when cars first appeared in urban streets a century or so ago, that is exactly what some children did).
Yet – as I emphasise all the time in my work – children have this irritating habit of growing up. So what does a responsible adult response to children’s daredevil tendencies look like? Especially given that as they grow up, their capacities evolve, and they gradually spend more time away from adult supervision and oversight.
I want to put forward two notions that it would be helpful for adults to explore with children in these contexts. The first is competence, and the second is informed participation. Competence is about getting the child to reflect on their own experiences, skills, dispositions and abilities. Informed participation is about helping children to give serious thought to the implications and possible consequences of the activities they choose to pursue.
If you were able to watch through to the end of James Kingston’s death-defying climb, you would have spotted a high level of awareness of his own competence. For instance, he has clearly practiced that one-armed hang hundreds of times, albeit in less perilous situations. It is also probably safe to assume that, as an old hand at free-running (check his other videos) he is aware of what might go wrong – in other words, of implications and consequences. I daresay he has a few scars to show for his experiences, and also a working applied knowledge of the laws of Newtonian physics (and quite possibly the laws of trespass).
Turning to various other dangerous pursuits, the question is this: when might it be helpful to talk about competence and informed participation, and when should adults stick to simple prohibitions? A lot depends on specifics, of course, such as the age and experiences of the children, and the nature of the activity. But it does seem to me that issuing prohibitions is not just an easy way out, but also a cop-out. Having laid down the rules, the adults are absolved of any further responsibility. Yet the children may be left ill-prepared for the freedom – and the responsibility – that inevitably comes their way as they grow up.
Children’s appetite for experience and adventure – for freedom and responsibility – is hard to overstate. Daredevil pursuits, extreme sports and dangerous games are best understood as one expression of this appetite, which for some is so strong that it could almost be said to be a life force. The response from us grown-ups needs to pay due respect to this. As the quote from James Kingston’s youtube video puts it, “I didn’t go up there to die. I went up there to live.”