Risk Assessment

Andrea Travers wonders if over-protecting our children is harmful.

From advertising to the evening news, the message is ‘Be afraid’. We can never let up, never let go. Our children are always at risk in so many aspects of their lives, from educational underachievement to stranger danger.

To safeguard our kids, parents ‘need’ help – specialist advice, products, books. Babies ‘need’ Beethoven, organic food, expensive prams, nutritional supplements, dance, gym, circus, art and music classes and their own laptops. Then it’s finding the best schools, creating the safest houses, completing background checks on babysitters and educating kids about online security settings.

All this is swimming through my head as I laze by the local pool watching my children play. The brilliant blue day is still and warm. Magazines and good coffee are at my side. A recipe for relaxation? No way.

I’m identifying possible dangers. Drowning. Skin cancer. Head injuries from jumping in the water too close to the edge. Fractures from running on the slippery surrounds of the pool. Tooth decay from the sugary treats consumed at the pool kiosk, which only sells junk food. Wasp and bee stings, and allergic reactions.

I challenge my neuroses. Drowning? I’m within reach, keeping close watch. Skin cancer? We’ve applied waterproof sunscreen and avoided the zenith of the sun. Head injuries and fractures? I’ve issued stern warnings about safe diving and walking around the pool. Tooth decay? We eat well, brush our teeth and see a dentist. Allergies? Both kids have been stung by various insects with no reaction.

It’s all covered. I’ve done all the right things. And I feel like The Fun Police.

Around the pool I hear the chorus of other parents: “No, we aren’t going to eat junk all day”; “Yes you will put on sunblock or we will go home”; “Please don’t jump on top of other kids”; “Put the rock down!”; “Let her come up for air – she can’t breathe”; “Stop running. Stop!”

Most of the time I can minimise my neurotic thoughts. But there is still that little voice inside that says, ‘Be careful! Don’t go near the edge! It can all go very wrong in a moment! Be alert and afraid!’ It’s hard to let go.

My daughter has become more independent recently, and likes to go for a run by herself. She’s 13 and very sensible. She runs in daylight. Our dog will be with her. She will carry a mobile phone and keep to the main roads. Yet although I’ve encouraged this independence, each time she leaves I check the clock, and if I feel she ought to be coming back up the street, I go to the front gate to look for her, making sure she doesn’t see me. Some parents will think I’m over-protective, others will wonder at my lax attitude to safety.

As a kid, I played around the neighbourhood from dawn until dusk with other local children. We only went home for food or to pick up a bike or toy we needed. On weekends and holidays our parents had only a vague idea of our whereabouts. We rode bikes, without wearing helmets or sunblock – actually, we used ‘tanning’ oil to hasten the burning process, and ended up red raw with agonising sunburn.

Looking back, I feel a sense of the freedom, the sheer spaciousness of those times. Weekends felt so long and luxurious. Life was expansive, with far and exciting horizons. We weren’t subject to the demanding timetables of many kids today. Running through a sprinkler on the grass was a sublime pleasure. Walking to the corner shop for an ice-block and slowly walking home enjoying the sensation of the frozen tang was a gorgeous treat.

When I was a child, the view from the top of the tree in our backyard was amazing. The branches were so broad, leafy and lush that we could lie on our backs across them and gaze at the sky. The breeze would gently swing us in our leafy hammocks. My son’s tree house looks very high to me. He climbs up to it on an old wooden ladder. Terrified, I have to bite my tongue and calm myself so as not to pass my fear on to him.

Here’s the thing: I do want brave children. I know they need to take calculated risks. They need bruises and scrapes and bumps and all the other wounds of childhood, or they might be inclined later in life to take poor risks or no risks at all. Like any reasonable parent, I’m keen on safer cars and more informed parenting. I’ll give my children all I can, and keep them as safe as I can.

But, for their sake, I don’t want to overdo it, and I do wonder if having too many rules or being too closely watched has negative effects on our children. What if we just loosened up a little, let them do their own thing? Just let them be? It can be scary, yes, but a far greater fear for me is that we might prevent them from developing imaginations and learning their own way to be in this world. Children need to have adventures and secrets, and they need private places where they are not so closely monitored, documented and scheduled.

It’s a difficult balance. We don’t want to put them in harm’s way. But if we don’t get out of the way and let them bump up against the hard edges of life sometimes, how will they learn to live? Maybe letting go a little is a good move. I feel it is. I have to trust that.

I’m brought out of my ponderings by two shiny-wet little heads bobbing up at the edge of the pool. “Mum! Mum! Come in. It’s warm!” Throwing aside caution and disregarding the safety rules, I take a short run and bomb into the water.

They’ve tricked me. It’s freezing. But it’s fun.

Illustration by Ben Sanders