Growing Up In a Cotton Wool World

If you ask someone old or middle-aged where they most liked to play as a child they will invariably answer that it was somewhere out of sight from adults and their parents. But ask someone young and you don’t generally get this response. The reason is that our notion of childhood — and specifically the risks associated with childhood – has shifted. These days we micro-manage our young, filling their every waking hour with ‘useful’ activities. We also adopt a zero-risk attitude to play that infantilises children if that’s not a complete oxymoron. In other words there is now a deep protectionist and interventionist impulse in society that runs totally against the old idea of benign neglect. And if you think this is bad now, it’s going to get worse in the future.

We are already tearing up playgrounds and replacing them will sanitised soft play areas. But what appears safe may actually be harming our children in the longer term because they give us — and them – a false sense of security. Moreover, the idea of safe play is a total fantasy. This cotton-wool world is eroding independence and removing resilience. In other words, we have been caught up in a myth of protection that is actually harming us. But what is actually driving this trend?

The answer, according to some, is the fact that families have become more isolated. We no longer share as many communal spaces. We are also, in my opinion, isolated by a global media that exports fear from around the world. Anxieties are therefore magnified and a realistic perspective is banished. This is odd because most of the figures support the view that the world is actually a much safer place than it was twenty, fifty or even one hundred years ago. What we have lost is not only innocence but also our ability to cope with uncertainty and discomfort. As a result, we tend to view worst-case scenarios as most likely outcomes and we look at the world through the eyes of the unluckiest.

Fortunately all is not lost. The success of books such as The Dangerous Book for Boys shows that some people instinctively understand what’s happening. Moreover, there is a new school of thought that says that boys in particular have a biological need to get out and about. They should be outdoors climbing trees, fashioning crude weapons and even playing with toy guns. And if they don’t they will suffer in terms of physical, emotional, social and cognitive development, Such a view would have been heresy a few years ago but things might slowly be changing.

By the way, if you think I’m exaggerating about this risk aversion consider this. Yesterday my five-year-old son brought part of his packed lunch back from school because his cheese and biscuits snack is now a banned foodstuff along with yoghurt and Kiwi fruit. The reason is that on the pack it says that the snack was “manufactured on equipment that also processes nuts” and the school isn’t prepared to take a chance. In other words, the school is saying that any kid with a nut allergy (and there isn’t one by the way) doesn’t need to take responsibility for their own actions in terms of what they eat. Instead responsibility is forwarded to everyone else in the class. Yet the very same day the headmaster of the school was talking to children and parents about the importance of resilience and risk taking in assembly.

Nuts? I’ve got a few other choice words I could use.

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2 Responses to Growing Up In a Cotton Wool World

  1. Mark says:

    I have noticed that policies like the one you mention about food restrictions in schools are much stronger in Australia. In Europe the systems seem to support more progress and be a little less phobic, while in the USA I think there are just too many people who complain too much for such extensive “catering for the lowest common denominator” slanted policy.

    Why do you think Australia is like this?

  2. I really have no idea why it’s stronger if indeed it is. I would almost have thought the opposite based on Australian being slightly less litigious.

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