Hurt, blame, stupidity: when being a free-range parent does not go to plan

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.

Me on my bike with my 3-year-old daughter in a bike seat

Kids on bikes: the sensible way

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.

9 responses to “Hurt, blame, stupidity: when being a free-range parent does not go to plan

  1. Great post. I’ll reblog over to Julia’s Place if that’s OK

  2. Reblogged this on Julia's Place and commented:
    What would you do?

  3. I’m just glad that kind of responsibility is behind me. ;-)

  4. I think we often learn a lot more from our parenting mistakes than from the bits we get right, but it doesn’t make us any more uncomfortable about them during the here and now…

  5. These injuries can be very nasty. It’s not just the child’s weight working against the child’s body, but also the kinetic energy due to the bike’s speed and the weight of the parent. All this is applied to the foot and lower leg. Not good.

    I don’t have the stats to hand right now, but you might not be surprised to hear that in the Netherlands, where carrying children on the back of a bike without a child seat is commonplace, such injuries make up a substantial proportion of child admissions to hospital.

    Skirtguards help to avoid this problem, but are not a total solution. For all that I like to see people doing fun stuff en-masse by bike, I cringe a little when I see exposed legs of children close to danger.

  6. It’s not just parents who have these dilemmas. Playworkers (and other advocates for everyday adventures) have to walk the same tightrope every day.
    Bill McCulloch used to ask “Are we riding into battle with our double standards flying high?” His point being that there could be a dichotomy between what playworkers thought was ok for other people’s children and what they would accept for their own or related children. This was in the days when adventure playgrounds had a very macho feel and a ‘boys’ culture. The pendulum of opinion and practice swings over the decades and many people became concerned that adventure playgrounds and the like were becoming too bland and risk-averse.
    Thankfully we now have the latest edition of Managing Risk in Play Provision and increasing media and public support for a more sensible and proportionate approach to risk.
    http://www.playengland.org.uk/resources/managing-risk-in-play-provision-implementation-guide.aspx
    And we all have our own memories of how we managed to ride a bike, climb a tree and so on. Double standards flying high, anyone?

  7. Reminds me of the time I ran my 6 year old daughter over in a neighbour’s paddock. We were driving 2 cattle over to the yards and she was my dog pushing the cows from behind while I drove beside them to keep them by the fence. When she wasn’t needed she would come and stand on the running board of the ute on the passenger’s side, despite me trying to convince her it wasn’t a good idea. She promised that she would lean in through the window and hold on tight, so I reluctantly let her do it. We were driving along a rise and the cows were walking to the yards well but I spotted a gate open on the fenceline between them and the gate I wanted them to go through, so sped up to beat them to the gate, at the same time I hit a huge hidden rut in the ground which caused me to lose control of the ute. I regained control after some horrendous bounces only to notice my daughter was no longer leaning in through the window.
    I felt that horrible hollow feeling as soon as I realised what had happened, fearing the worst I jumped out of the ute and yelled out for her in the long grass, which seemed like an eternity as there was no noise. Then with relief I hear her cry out “You have run Me over” as she sits up and I spot her in the grass. What a relief, luckily after rushing her to hospital she was treated and discharged with only bruising from where the wheel ran across both her legs. To this day I still feel guilty of how close we came to loosing her, however she became confident enough pretty quickly to start breaking the rules again, however when she did I made sure that I was extra careful.

    Living in the country our belief was there was nothing wrong with doing risky things, as long as you were careful doing it, without making mistakes and hurting ourselves, we can’t discover the limits of what we can do.

  8. Julia, Pooky, Letscutthecrap, David, Tony, Mick – thanks for the comments. (Good to see you here David – I’m a fan of your blog.) The anecdotes (and Tony – your one sends shivers down my spine) have a common theme, which is that the children are not the ones actively taking risks – they have handed over the responsibility to the adults, who have then made mistakes. So it’s a little different to say a forest school or adventure playground (or to kids playing out on their own), where part of the justification is that the child can learn through their own efforts. But there is a common theme around a shared adventurous disposition, and also an acceptance that a life without risk would be intolerable (perhaps impossible). But as I said in the piece, this disposition cannot give a blanket get-out clause for adults.

  9. Another healthy aspect of this is the way Lott is not only capable of saying Mea Culpa, but apparently sees it as important enough to embarrass himself in public.
    Zero-Risk often seems to go hand-in-hand with the feeling that if something does go wrong then it’s clearly someone else’s fault (someone else who may be hearing from a lawyer in the near future), but in taking clear responsibility for a cock-up we show our children that we can and do make mistakes, and we see it as significant that we take responsibility for them (and say what we’ll be doing to make sure we don’t repeat the mistake).
    An ability to stand up and say “I got that wrong” is a vital part of getting it right next time… the catch is underlined by the joke, “if at first you don’t succeed… then sky-diving isn’t the sport for you”, but thankfully fatalities and serious injuries are genuinely rare in our inevitable parenting mistakes.

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