In this weekend’s Guardian, columnist Tim Lott writes about how his seven-year-old daughter ended up in hospital with a nasty injury after a cycling accident that was entirely his fault. He had been giving her a lift on the back of his bike, and her foot got horribly caught up in the wheel.
Lott says, “I feel awful about what happened… But I refuse to swing to the other extreme – to a world seen through distorting spectacles that show only hazard.” He concludes:
“No one goes through childhood without getting hurt. And I won’t let the continuing pangs of my guilt prevent my children living a childhood where confidence, not fear, is the wellspring of behaviour.”
Clearly Lott’s philosophy is close to my own. But the similarities do not end there. I did something uncannily similar, when my own daughter was about five and a bit too big for her sturdy bike seat.
Thankfully, her injuries were not that bad – a trip to the GP revealed no serious damage. But I still recall the incident with a shudder. She remembers it too. It has not stopped her having a ‘backy’ every now and then. Although when she does, we are both a lot more careful.
All parents can recall episodes like these. They remind us of the powerful emotions that arise in the immediate aftermath of an accident – especially when a loved one has suffered from our stupidity. They also point to an important insight about risk: when something goes wrong, it takes time to gain a balanced perspective. And this just as true for everyday mishaps as it is for tragedies.
Lott’s incident, like mine, brings home another truth. Embracing everyday adventure means letting go of the idea that nothing will ever go wrong. The very definition of risk is that the outcomes are not entirely certain. (Though this is not an excuse for negligence, and we need to be ready to learn from our mistakes.)
So I am encouraged by Lott’s ‘confession’. It shows that the voice of what might be called the ‘free range parent’ is growing in confidence. There is still a strong child-rearing norm that says being a good parent means being a controlling parent. But this norm – which previous generations of parents would have found all but incomprehensible – is being challenged ever more vocally and assertively (I am thinking of my kindred spirits Lenore Skenazy and Maggie Dent here).
Parents sometimes say to me. “I agree with your philosophy. I want to give my child more freedom. But what can I do?” Part of the answer is simply to speak out: to be confident in your approach. Even when – especially when – things do not quite go according to plan.