Risky play, frisky children: When does a careful free rein become overprotection?
Allowing small children to rough-and-tumble and climb trees is one thing, but an overnight trip brings a different set of worries
According to a Norwegian professor of early-childhood education, Ellen Sandseter, children have a sensory need to taste danger and excitement. Photograph: Thinkstock
Navigating societal expectations about what’s appropriate for one’s children isn’t easy. I’ve always been obsessed with getting my sons outdoors, and pretty relaxed when it comes to their physical safety. Whether in Ireland or Belgium, where we’ve been living for the past five years, I’ve attempted, as far as possible, to give them a free rein. In both countries I’ve always felt as if I’m bucking the trend.
Strangers have stopped and stared at my youngest, Tarla, at age four, covered in muck, shimmying along a too-high branch in a Brussels park or freewheeling down a steep, bumpy pavement. Other parents frequently make me feel slightly delinquent when my boys wander out of view and I don’t panic immediately.
In Ireland I’ve been admonished for sending our elder boy, Cóilín, on an errand in a small rural Irish village when he was six. Last year I was castigated for letting Tarla out of my sight when hiking with a large group of adults and kids up a boggy, heather-covered Waterford hillside to a corrie lake. I’ve even been accused of recklessness.
It’s been a relief, then, to read the recently published Cotton Wool Kids, What’s Making Irish Parents Paranoid?’ by Offaly-based psychotherapist Stella O’Malley. She bemoans the damage we are doing to children by keeping them indoors, supervised and overcontrolled, for fear of danger lurking outside.
She quotes a Norwegian professor of early-childhood education, Ellen Sandseter, who says children have a sensory need to taste danger and excitement. She identifies six types of necessary risky play: exploring heights; handling dangerous tools such as sharp scissors, knives and hammers; being near dangerous elements such as large bodies of fire or water; rough-and-tumble play; speed; and exploring on one’s own.
My boys have had plenty of this risky play so I’m used to feeling like the risk-taking parent. It came as a surprise then, when faced with the prospect of a three-day, two-night Belgian school trip, to find myself firmly labelled an “overprotective” parent.
Cóilín had just turned five when he arrived home with a few pieces of pink A4 paper about a class verte, roughly translatable as a nature trip. There was some brief information about what the kids would be up to at their destination, a former abbey in the hilly Ardennes region.
Cóilín himself announced that he’d be sleeping in a dormitory and that in the night “there’d be a man there in case we need a glass of water or to go to the toilet”. I was stunned at the thought of a complete stranger minding my little boy.
I attempted to find out more about the arrangements but, other than being told that the staff all had state-approved qualifications, details weren’t very forthcoming. I queried the thoroughness of the child-protection measures in place. “I’m Irish, you see,” I stuttered, by way of explanation. “And we are not used to this.”
I angsted endlessly about what to do, canvassing opinion from friends and other parents. Their advice was as conflicted as my thoughts. On the one hand: It’s a super, cheap opportunity to immerse your son in the language and culture; everyone else is going; he’ll feel left out if he doesn’t go. On the other: But who are these people minding him? And he’s only five. Surely this is too young.
In the end we couldn’t bring ourselves to send Cóilín. He was disappointed but at just five he was easily distracted for those few days. His teacher was disappointed, too, and she found it hard to understand our concerns.
Since then I’ve quizzed Belgian people about these trips and have come to appreciate they are a deeply ingrained tradition. The school principal says they’ve been going for at least 30 years because she can remember going away herself for a fortnight at the age of six.
Michel Colot, director of extracurricular activities in our area (education here is largely devolved to local level), tells me that by law schools have the liberty to organise such trips.
Their purpose, particularly for the very young children, is to teach them how to live together outside school, he says. “Many teachers note that the class spirit lifts after these trips,” he says, adding that it’s also an opportunity for urban children to get out into the countryside.
Earlier this year Cóilín spent five days by the North Sea with his school year on their so-called classe de mer (sea trip). The decision to send him wasn’t so difficult this time, as he was nearly eight. The author Dervla Murphy, who once bemoaned the immediacy of contact between young travellers and their parents, would have been impressed. We weren’t allowed any contact with him all week other than by letter- writing.
Recently, we were faced with the same conundrum as three years ago. Tarla’s class of four- and five-year-olds were heading off for their three-day, two-night trip. I remained conflicted about what to do.
In the end he went, he had a great time, and we survived on daily text updates from his teacher.
But I’m still not certain it’s appropriate for a five-year-old. The only thing I’m sure of is that as parents we need to keep questioning our cultural norms.