How do we respond to daredevil children?

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.

Do_not_press_buttonThe 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.

Two children on a tree swing trapezeI 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.”

18 responses to “How do we respond to daredevil children?

  1. That just made me sick to my stomach! My hands are dripping with sweat and my heart is racing! With that said, I think children should be allowed to learn to climb, learn balance, confidence and all of the things it took for this person to do this. However if it were my children I would lock them in a closet and nail the door shut! Can you tell I have a fear of heights? I pray that James Kingston lives a long and happy life and I am in awe of what he did in that video and there is no way I can picture myself doing that.

  2. Thank you Tim for your thoughtful post. To me, the desire (and the behaviour) is not new and more important, the desire is not limited to children or young people. However, fortunately or unfortunately, what’s new in our modern 21st century Western societies is the coverage by different media and the conclusions that each and every one of us draws from watching a person’s ( I like to call it intimate if it’s not necessarily for attention) behaviour, It is intimate because of the very personal meaning that one draws from it, a meaning not shared with many of us … but because many of us now get a chance to see it, we feel responsible to respond to it, to do something about it, to “fix” it.

  3. Something which is ‘extreme danger’ to one person may be routine to someone else. As well as competence being a key factor so is confidence – the utter realisation that you can not and will not make a mistake. Just take driving: we speed past other cars traveling in the other direction within a couple of feet of each other at a combined speed of over 100 m.p.h. but don’t consider it extreme danger. That total confidence comes from much practice, and knowing that you are operating well within your capabilities.

    As an example, in a former job I used to teach rock climbing to adults. This included teaching ‘lead climbing’ to those that were sufficiently able and willing, which was most of them. That’s why they often came on the courses. In those days teaching leading meant solo climbing beside them, checking the placement of protection, rope management, etc. We might sometimes be 250 feet off the ground, the same height as the crane!

    We instructors choose routes which were really well within our capabilities, and which we knew really well. I remember that concentration levels were high but I do not remember it being frightening. (Well, not often!)

    Teaching children that there are two parts to danger, likelihood and consequence, will help them to learn that they should not push the limits with both at the same time!

  4. What is lost in the discussion is the preparation for Kingston’s feat. I remember watching a documentary (http://www.manonwire.com) about the Frenchman who walked between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York in 1974. I was surprised at the amount of thinking, philosophizing, preparation and planning that went into his feat. Just last week in the USA, one of the most experienced storm chaser’s was killed chasing a storm in Oklahoma. He had vast amounts of experience chasing storms gathering scientific data. Both these men were cognizant of the risks involved in their endeavors. These people test the bounds of our human existence, but they do not do it willy-nilly. And we are better for it. Maybe we can help children create the capacity to measure risk by talking about the thought, training and preparation that goes into these “daredevil exploits.”

  5. Great blog Tim! As always youve made me reflect on my own recent experiences: last week on a trip to the local shop i witnessed 2 teenage boys debating the merits of playing chicken on the main road. upon leaving the shop they had obviously made up their minds as one of them walked upto the pelican crossing, pressed the button and waited for the green man to arrive before seeing how many times he could run back and forth across the road before it change to the red man again. I see children and teenagers demonstrating plenty of bravado but more readily an ability to surprise in good way.
    Did the TV station find someone else to berate the video instead?

  6. Thanks for all the comments so far. Debbie – as someone with a modest (at best) head for heights, I’m with you on your reaction to the video – I was literally holding my chair at points. Farveh – you are right that such performances are often intimate, and have a back story that we need to respect. And I agree that our world of instant sharing and commentary does not make that easy. Tom – your point about the need to recognise the practice and preparation that lies behind the glossy, compelling end-product (the performance, and also its recording) expands on what I have in mind with the idea of competence. Competence rarely emerges fully-formed (and Marcus, I agree that confidence is important too). Chris – thanks for the feedback, and the revealing (if slightly scary) anecdote. I’m not sure if the TV station found anyone else – it was a local station and I didn’t catch the bulletin. I kind of hope not!

  7. Totally agree with Tom Bedard – there needs to be more focus on how these BIG risk taking activities are prepared so that children get the message that we need to THINK before we act… to be aware of possible consequences and to be happy with those consequences whatever they may be…

  8. Well, you were right about the effect the video had! But really, you are right to talk in terms of appetite. Vergil once said that “everyone is drawn by their own (sense of/need for) delight,” and although even as a child a step-ladder was a bit too much for me, I can sense from the clip the man’s desire for and delight in risk.

    How do we encourage that desire?

    I suppose we don’t start, as the reporter did in approaching you, by talking about wobbly bridges and high cranes in the same breath – but I have had children at my nursery who, now they’ve grown up, have gone and done the Bunjee thing. The reasoned debate looks not at the extreme but at the everyday. The daily risks might lead some up that crane – but might lead others in other directions: to dare to talk to someone who looks lonely; to take a smaller physical risk and push their exercise; to climb (or even walk up) a mountain and see the view and be enriched by it. I don’t see much of an argument for being enriched by not taking a risk.

  9. Nick and Suzanne – thanks for the comments. “I don’t see much of an argument for being enriched by not taking a risk.” – absolutely.

  10. Perfect timing for this blog post: I ran the first taster day of Play Learning Life’s 50 Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Children Do (This Summer) day camp during the half term holiday and have had hugely positive feedback from the parents of the 17 children who participated in the day – climbing trees, making and managing fires, exploring freely and out of sight of adults, making dens and tree swings, trying out electric shocks. Grant outcome permitting (everything crossed), the ‘full’ day camp will start this August for three weeks over the summer hols and will operate for at least one or two days through all of the school holidays, each year.

    This is an extract from our Business Plan – we won’t be encouraging children to climb cranes but I’ll be very disappointed if their one-arm-hanging-from-a-height skills are not very finely honed by the end of the summer:

    “This playscheme concept has been inspired by evidence of a growing movement amongst parents away from ‘cotton wool kids’ and towards enabling children to enjoy the play experiences we as adults took for granted when we were children: paddling in streams or local park pools; making fires; climbing trees; taking a packed lunch and disappearing for a few hours with friends.

    Evidence suggests that children are in no more danger of death or serious injury during play, than they ever have been; what’s happened is that we as parents have become more aware of serious dangers without also accepting their rarity. This has made us as a society more fearful and litigious – and the outcome of this has been that many perfectly reasonable play activities appear to have been deemed unsafe and are now beyond most children’s normal play expectations.

    Schools are less able and willing to provide risky play, and adventure playgrounds (those that have survived) have become more sanitised and safe. In some ways, these are good changes, but children have ever fewer opportunities to take risks – to get hurt – to learn basic skills – to succeed and to share these experiences with adults who not only understand how important this is to children, but are actively encouraging it.

    However… the tide may be turning. The welcome spread of ‘forest school’ techniques in the early years, along with a greater understanding of the value of children connecting with nature means that some parents are looking for ways of providing managed and risk assessed adventurous play. Most notably, 2012’s High Level Statement on Risk in Children’s Play, published by the H&SE clearly states the government’s aim of providing play experiences that are as safe as necessary and no more. The 50 Dangerous Things summer camp will offer all of this – with all activities planned and supervised by knowledgeable, enthusiastic, qualified and experienced outdoor practitioners.”

    Sorry – the footnotes haven’t transferred across, but in the BP we link to the evidence base and the supporting docs. I didn’t mean this to be a plug, just to point out that there are many practitioners, ourselves included, who are trying to encourage children and young people to explore and experiment and test and risk assess in a similar manner to James Kingston. Just not to climb cranes ‘on our watch’!

  11. Amazing, edge of your seat, holy-crap-I-hope-your-palms-aren’t-sweaty, does-your-mother-know-what-you’re-doing? stuff! This footage reminds me of Alex Honnold in his most recent movie ‘Honnold 3.0’. Yeah, OK, so Alex climbs enormous rock faces with no rope. But it’s his facial expression when he talks about it that gets me everytime. There is pure joy there when he talks about climbing. Someone, somewhere, sometime allowed him time and space to discover his gift of holding on tight. As an early childhood teacher I don’t want to be the ‘that’s too high be careful’ person; I want to be the ‘one’, providing the ‘where’ and the ‘time’, to climb (and hold on tight!).
    How do I respond to daredevil children? With the respect they deserve.

  12. Nicholas Paton Philip

    I’m preparing to do an OU assignment about the shared responsibility for children’s safety and came across your webblog via Field in Trust and Love Outdoor Play. It’s great to know that there are serious discussions on such a vital topic for our children growing up in such a risk averse society, one of the worst in Europe. So, thanks for your contribution and I was particularly struck by your 2 notions of competence and informed participation. Would I be able to to quote you?

    • Thanks for this Nicholas – and yes of course you can quote from this post. You may also want to check my book No Fear if you have not already. The full text is available for free as a PDF – see the relevant page of my website.

  13. What I do for a living is a perfect example of allowing children to take risks. check out my blog to see what goes on at a little park named Avalon Park in Preserve in Long Island New York.

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