Let Them Run Free

bubblewrapI read an article in The Australian last week (by Cassandra Wilkinson, author of Don’t Panic: Nearly Everything is Better Than You Think) on how, over the last decade, Australian Playground Safety Standards have been changing the design of children’s play spaces ‘to remove danger, risk and quite a bit of fun’.

In a nutshell, Wilkinson is worried that children today are not free enough to explore their world, to make mistakes and have accidents.  She says that while play itself is rarely bad for children (in that serious injuries from play are pretty rare), missing out on play can have life-long health and social consequences.

I tend to agree.  Just the other day my youngest child fell out of a tree and bumped his head on the twiggy detritus below.  No blood.  A few tears.  A lesson on “knowing one’s limits” well underway.

Even before he fell, though, a concerned onlooker approached me and asked if I was happy for him to be climbing so.  Weakly, I pretended I didn’t know he’d gone so high and I half-heartedly asked him to come down.  When, of course, he didn’t, I merely instructed him to be careful.

Funny that saying: “be careful”.  It makes me feel as though I’ve done my bit, my child will heed the warning accordingly and I can go back to my skinny ‘cino; but in reality kids simply don’t hear this sort of boring instruction.  It has no effect.  They continue in their important quest, regardless.

So when he inevitably fell out of the tree there were many disgusted, incredulous glances cast my way by the Yarralumla lunchers (have you seen the pine trees at Oaks Brasserie?  They are just made for climbing!) who, bizarrely, deem climbing trees unacceptable, yet taking dogs to a cafe and ordering poochie pasta for them quite normal.

I was somewhat embarrassed by the whole ordeal, but still, comfortable with what I had let my child discover for himself: that falling hurts and one should always proceed with due caution.  What else could I have done, anyway?  Stood there and hovered over my boy (or under my boy, I suppose, in this particular case) the whole time, like the proverbial helicopter?

One of the problems we face when trying to let our children run free is the disapproval of our peers.  We struggle with the concept of not always following the rules that society sets for us.  We worry about what other parents will think.

Will they think we’re bad parents if we let our kids go up the slide the wrong way?  What if we don’t force them to give half their muesli bar to the hungry looking kid they’ve just befriended and then follow up with gushy shouts of “good sharing!”?  Or, worst of all, what if we let them play outside for a short period of time without a hat on?  Will we be ostracised?

When I first started taking my children to playgrounds I remember feeling quite shocked and dismayed at the number of parents who spent half their time trying to force two year olds to keep hats on.  If the kids didn’t comply, they were hauled off the equipment and made to stand under the shade of their mother’s wrath.  I’m all for taking care of the little ones’ skin but I’m not in favour of a zero tolerance approach to learning and living.

A little leeway is nice.  A softly-softly approach to teaching children can be much less stressful for everyone.  And I know it’s true, but if I hear one more person tell me that you can still get burnt on cloudy days, I may scream.

Sometimes it’s good not to follow the rules.  Just for fun, why not let them run in the house or balance precariously on their dinner chair?  What’s the worst that could happen?  I know the old saying, that it’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye, but how many people do you know who’ve actually lost an eye?

We try to have as few rules as possible in our house (hence why it often looks like a bomb shell, but I can deal with that most of the time).  You can bounce a ball inside, you can jump on the couches and you can eat in bed (well, that applies mostly to me).  Our trampoline has no net and I let all three children on at once.  None of them has ever broken a bone or indeed, lost an eye.

Preventing children from exploring their world unfettered is just one symptom of so-called helicopter parenting.  I could discuss many more.

But one more that particularly bugs me is the doling out of over-the-top praise when children undertake ordinary, everyday procedures.  You’ll often hear little Ella applauded for her excellent nose blowing or toddler Tom for his amazing deposit in the toilet.  Just like stopping them from climbing trees, this too will make children less resilient and less able to cope with failure.

For what happens when these children get out into the big, bad world and realise they are not, in fact, the Bees Knees?  That there is not always going to be someone there to tell them how great they are?  Much better to congratulate children for trying something hard and failing, I say, rather than for “achieving” humdrum tasks that should be allowed to happen naturally, without the pomp and ceremony, such as finishing dinner or playing nicely with friends.

I guess it comes down to what it is we want our children to achieve in the long run.  Do we want them to be risk takers?  Leaders of the future?  Or do we merely want them to be safe, learn the rules and stay out of trouble?

What do you think? Is a little risk good for kids…or should we always be there to keep them out of harm’s way?

About Sonia Bowditch

Writer on society and culture in Australia. And short stories.

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