Debate: Let's Stop Hating On Parents Who Want To Raise Adventurous Kids

As Mollycoddling Kids Is ‘More Dangerous Than Letting Them Play With Knives’, Says A New Study

Credit: iStock/FerranTraite

Words by Sam Haddad

Last week, we posted this video of three-year-old Ocean skating with steeze way beyond his years on Facebook…

Three-year-old Ocean absolutely slaying!

Posted by Mpora on Wednesday, June 17, 2015

It got a lot of love, hundreds of thousands of likes in fact, but as is often the case in these digital days it got some hate too, with one guy posting: “No helmet, no pads! This should be classed as child abuse, it’s certainly neglect.”

For the record, you can see Ocean practising the same move with a helmet in this video…

This dude is called Ocean. He’s three years old. …And wait till you see how good his six year old sister is:

Posted by Mpora on Thursday, June 4, 2015

So presumably once he’d mastered said trick his parents thought it was ok to take the helmet off. But the veritable vipers’ nest that is the helmet debate is not where we’re heading today.

Instead I want to talk about why some people are so happy to call out other parents on account of what they perceive as risky behaviour with their kids. And how damaging that can be.

One of the worst instances being when seven-year-old Carwyn Scott-Howell tragically fell off a cliff while skiing with his family in France last April. Reports said that when his sister had fallen on a jump he’d asked his Mum if he could ski the last run alone. Given that he’d been skiing since he was a toddler and knew the run well his Mum made a judgement call. One that she’ll now be reliving on a loop every waking second of her life…

As a parent, whose kids took their first turns on skis this winter, when I first heard the story it made me want to puke. From sadness and sympathy for the mother, her late son, her family, her friends and those of son. Death is horrendous; the death of a child a zillion times more so. It didn’t occur to me to question or comment on her parenting. Or to stop taking my young kids skiing.

In some people, however, it provoked a different response. I won’t link to it but a Daily Mail article on the death was full of parent-blaming comments. Here’s a snapshot: “Why was he skiing at 7?” “What was the mother thinking?” “A stupid decision that will haunt them forever…” “Why was he out of their sight…”

Aside from the callousness of leaving such comments on a post that a grieving family might read, we don’t know the full facts and of course you have to presume the mother assessed the risk, and decided it was ok. The little boy just had a tragic accident. Which happens in life.

It’s an extreme example. But I can’t help wondering how much sensationalised reporting, as is the case with any tragedy involving a child, be that a murder or abduction or even a cycling accident, all of which are super-rare and unlucky, combined with the social media-led public shaming of the parents, which always follows, is influencing behaviour, and making parents way more cautious as a result.

According to the National Trust, a 2008 study showed half of all children have stopped climbing trees, and fewer than 10 per cent of children play in wild places, compared to 50 per cent a generation ago. A child’s roaming radius, as in how far kids play from their homes, has shrunk by 90 per cent in 30 years. While a 2013 University of Westminster study showed that in 1971 86 per cent of primary school aged children walked home alone, now just 25 per cent do.

When pressed as to why their kids aren’t allowed to play outside by a YouGov survey, 37 per cent of parents cited “stranger danger”, and a Canadian study had that figure at 81 per cent. Yet Home Office Stats show the chances of your child being abducted have been consistent over the last 30 years, a risk of one in 14 million according to the Canadian study. It’s just our perception of that risk that has been magnified, by big cases such as Madeleine McCann and the Soham murders of Holly and Jessica, and blown out of all proportion.

But why does this all matter? Because countless studies are now showing the risks of not taking risks are actually far greater to children than the chance of any of these one-off incidents happening to your kids.

Just this week a study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, cited in the Guardian, said children need “risky play” to thrive, which includes “climbing, jumping from a great height, unsupervised play where a child could get lost, cycling fast down a hill, playing with knives or playing near water or cliffs”.

A University of Bristol study also showed that kids who regularly play outdoors have a reduced risk of obesity and that outdoor play sees kids being far more active than when they play indoors. Presumably the pervasive power of screens indoors doesn’t help. While, another study showed a child’s risk of ADHD was reduced with more outdoor play too.

So the science clearly backs up the benefits of encouraging risky and adventurous play in your kids. But even if it didn’t I’d want that for my children anyway. For their heads and their hearts. I love snowboarding, surfing and riding my bike. I also like to hike, to get lost in nature and swim in the sea. And I want to share that stoke with them too.

I’m not saying that to do so doesn’t scare me, or involve suppressing a parental instinct to protect them at all costs, and I certainly wouldn’t want them to be reckless but encouraging them to ride powder or surf green waves or even just climb a high tree or race their bikes down a hill, well these are some of the greatest pleasures life will ever give them.

And you can’t be worrying about freak events, when the stats show the biggest risk to a child’s life actually happens on car journeys or at a swimming pool. Not forgetting the dangers of inactivity mentioned above.

I love this National Trust list of 50 things all kids should do before they’re 11 ¾, with entries such as explore a cave, camp out in the wild and damn a stream. And one of my favourite adventure-parent stories is when the climber Andy Kirkpatrick went up El Capitan in Yosemite with his 13-year-old daughter Ella (pictured above). Read it when you get the chance. It’s inspiring stuff.

More recently, the North Face-sponsored skier Kits Deslauriers has written for Outside on why she’s taking her young girls to the Arctic, where they’ll be at least 24 hours from help should anything go wrong. Deslauriers, a trained first-aider, says:

“For a lot of people—kids especially—wild places are scary. But it’s the not-so-easy parts of life where we all grow the most. Exposing my children to an intact ecosystem 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle is worth a bit of managed risk.

As a mother, I want to protect my kids from harm. I also want them to thrive.”

Amen to that. It’s high time we stopped the sniping and celebrated the vision of this kind of parenting.

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