Cotton-wool kids

Schools are banning tag and bullrush. Parents are stopping their children from climbing trees. Kim Dungey asks what's going on.

As a girl, Melissa Bremner would often disappear for hours on end but the Dunedin mother would "have a fit" if her own boys proposed doing the same.

"You need to know these days where they are," she says.

"It's a sad fact."

Like other parents, Bremner struggles with how to keep her children safe while letting them take risks and have adventures.

While she allows her 10-year-old son to play across the road, other parents restrict their children to the garden gate - a trend that has led some to suggest we are wrapping kids in cotton wool.

A recent study in the United Kingdom showed children were less likely to play outside than their parents were when they were growing up.

Half of children aged 7 to 12 were not allowed to climb a tree without adult supervision, 17% had been banned from playing tag and one in five had been stopped from playing conkers, the study of 1000 children and 1032 adults found.

Without an adult present, a third were not allowed to ride a bike to a friend's house and 42% were not allowed to play at their local park.

However, three-quarters of children were allowed to surf the Internet unsupervised.

Safety concerns have also seen some schools ban traditional childhood activities like lunchtime football, snowball fights, cartwheels and handstands because they are deemed too dangerous.

One school in the UK prohibited pupils from doing the backstroke in swimming lessons because they might bump into somebody, while another in California banned tag because there is a "victim" or "it", which creates a self-esteem issue.

It is a situation that leads parenting expert Ian Grant to declare that common sense is not so common any more.

And he is not alone.

A ban on bullrush in some New Zealand schools moved one principal to complain that boys are missing out on crucial rough-and-tumble in a "feminised" school system that does not allow them to let off steam.

And recently, rugby great Sir Brian Lochore described how his children rode on the back of a motorbike, climbed trees and played in mud while he drank in the bar after a game - all things he said were frowned upon by today's "politically correct" society.

Lochore urged fathers to let their children take risks but to lay down rules and impose consequences if those rules are broken.

Critics of the cotton-wool culture say we are rearing our children in captivity, their habitat shrinking almost daily.

Playing games like tag helps children learn to negotiate rules and resolve disputes, they claim.

Not only that, but limiting adventurous play when we are worried about childhood obesity seems ironic.

Overprotected children are denied the opportunity to develop skills they can draw on later when faced with stressful situations, says Parents Inc founder Ian Grant.

Those who do not learn how to deal with risks in childhood will often "drop out" and blame others when later faced with challenges or will seek excitement from "stupid risks like fast cars and drugs".

Yet parents face a dilemma and confronted with stories like the reported abduction of Madeleine McCann or the motorcycle crash of Feilding 9-year-old Christian Nisbett, it is not surprising that many would rather be safe than sorry.

Most would like to give their children more freedom - two doing it are Steve and Emma Brown, who run local outdoor education company Wild Earth Adventures.

Steve Brown (37), remembers riding the farm motorbike to his school bus stop, steering a truck from the age of 4 while his father fed out to stock on the back, and exploring the slopes of Mt Pirongia near Raglan.

But he says if he parented the way his parents did, he would probably "get a visit" from Child, Youth and Family.

"It was acceptable for me to get home from school on Friday, grab a couple of tins of baked beans and the dog, leave a note saying `up the mountain' and not be home 'til Sunday night."

Often he had to run to meet the deadline and once, when he was doing so, he wrenched his knee so badly he could not walk on it, he recalls.

"I tied a note around Prince, my dog, and sent him home and Dad came up. If you did that these days, you'd be strung up. Imagine the headlines - 'Child left up mountain alone'. As a culture, we've bought into the cotton-woolling."

Wife Emma (also 37), grew up in the city but also had relative freedom compared to today's youngsters.

She got herself to school and like other children in her neighbourhood, was always "in and out of everybody's houses".

"We had to tell Mum if we were off to such-and-such a house but we didn't have to ask to go there. And we'd go to the park around the corner by ourselves."

These days, the couple's photo album is crammed with pictures of their almost-5-year-old daughter climbing trees, rafting, kayaking, snorkelling and fishing.

At 7 weeks, Lily accompanied her parents on their traditional Christmas camping holiday in Wanaka.

At 1, she lived in a tent for five weeks at Paradise where her father was working.

For her fourth birthday, she invited friends on a camping and rafting trip to Beaumont.

Earlier this year, during a four-day rafting trip on the Clutha River, she saw a piece of willow and told her parents it would make a perfect "adventure stick".

Sometimes she takes the branch on adventures in her own backyard - provided an adult is watching, she is allowed to cross a creek to meet a neighbourhood friend.

But she also carries it further afield, marks on its surface keeping tally of the fish and rabbits she has caught.

While she has not broken a bone on her outdoor adventures, she once cut her eye while jumping on her bed at home.

"My life philosophy is to work hard, play hard," her father says.

"If she could take on some of that, fantastic."

"Also, trying new things is good for your confidence," his wife says, adding that family and business activities are structured so people have both challenges and achievements.

Whether they are taking out Lily or paying clients, the couple manage risks so people have safe experiences.

But Steve Brown is horrified that many schools are now putting camps in the "too hard" basket, believing there are too many rules to adhere to.

Young children do not have to do adrenalin-pumping activities like abseiling or kayaking that are governed by regulations and should get to do "back-to-basics stuff" like sleeping in a tent, damming a creek and cooking fritters over a fire: "There are no rules about tents, about fires, about freedom camping or climbing trees".

Some say blaming parents is unfair and the problem is a wider cultural obsession with risk, which has had a major impact on policy makers, public institutions and media debate.

Suspicion about adults' motives has seen closed circuit television in childcare centres and rules governing the use of cameras in swimming pools and other places where children gather.

In an attempt to protect children from any potential harm, they say, we have banned pies from school canteens, created exam systems that nobody fails and made the world so "clean" that our immune systems never properly develop.

In April 2008, New York Sun columnist Lenore Skenazy wrote an article entitled, "Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Take The Subway Alone" and was immediately branded "America's worst mom".

Skenazy gave her son a subway map, a transit card, a $20 note and change to make a call, then left him in a Manhattan department store, telling him she would see him at home.

Later, she described how she was criticised simply for allowing her child to do what most people her age had done routinely when they were young - go somewhere on their own "without a security detail".

While many criticised the writer for not giving her son a mobile phone, others reacted positively to the story, prompting her to create her Free Range Kids website for those who think "kids need a little more freedom".

"We are not daredevils," she would write.

"We believe in life jackets and bike helmets and air bags. But we also believe in independence."

Ian Grant says after he spoke on the issue recently, he was told of two schools that had banned running, not just in corridors but anywhere on the school grounds.

And after a child was tragically killed on a jungle gym, climbing equipment everywhere was lowered, when the mats underneath could "just have been made spongier".

"We've got so many government servants . . . and become so law-bound. We're missing balance."

Grant says society is turning fathers into "male mothers" obsessed with safety instead of adventure.

While mothers can provide adventure too, fathers take an "edgier" approach: "When a mother goes into a park, she naturally thinks, 'How can I make sure my children are safe?' whereas dads go in thinking, "What crazy things can we do here?'."

One father who has encouraged his children to have new experiences is Brighton's Trevor King, whose 14-year-old son, Campbell, was injured in a motocross race earlier this year.

Campbell, a South Island supercross age-group champion, had a full knee reconstruction in June after severing his anterior cruciate ligament and tearing cartilage in his knee.

His father says the crash was "just one of those things" and realistically, the injury could be the first of many.

"You can get run over by a bus crossing the road. You can't be wrapped up in cottonwool. You've got to take a few risks. That's Campbell's attitude too."

Making children do something they don't want to is unfair, King says.

But if kids are passionate about an activity, parents should minimise the risk by ensuring they have appropriate safety gear and instruction, then "support them regardless".

Society is being dictated to by "do-gooders" who have "absolutely lost the plot".

However, he and wife Debbie did not allow their children to make their own way to school, partly because they live on a busy road used by logging trucks but also because they feel society is not as safe as it used to be.

"The first murder I remember was [that of] Jennifer Beard," he says.

"That was a major thing. Now there's one or more a week and they're so common, they're not even newsworthy . . . There are some seriously drugged-up nutters out there."

Mosgiel mother Jackie Gibson says her biggest fear is inappropriate personal contact from bullies or strangers.

"I don't mind the kids climbing trees and getting dirty - that's what doctors and washing machines are for . . . But emotional things are harder to see and harder to fix."

Like others spoken to for this story, Gibson (35), remembers an idyllic childhood, sometimes - like the Lochore children - playing with her brothers outside the rugby clubrooms while her parents had a drink inside.

"We knew the boundaries though. We weren't allowed past a certain gate or something like that, and we had to be with other children."

Her own 5-year-old is allowed to ride on the footpath outside their home and walk 100m to the school bus stop alone.

However, he is not permitted to walk to friends' houses unsupervised, partly because the family home backs on to Silverstream and "also because he's a little bit young".

Recently, Gibson started to tell her sons, 5 and 3, to stop jumping off a chair on to the floor in case they hurt themselves, then thought better of it.

"They weren't harming themselves or anyone else. So they did it and had a blast."

She also appreciated that when she took one boy to the doctor because he'd sprained a finger in a bit of "rough-and-tumble" with his brother, the GP said he was happy to patch up a minor injury caused by kids having fun.

Melissa Bremner, mum to two "active" boys, says parents perceive there are more dangers for children these days and it is harder to let them have some space.

One change is that generally people do not know their neighbours as well as they used to.

Would she like her sons to have more freedom?

"Of course," she says. "But Jordan's 10 and for his age, he has appropriate freedom. He's allowed to go over to the school across the road with his friends and ride his bike . . . You've got to let them go a bit."

Bremner, who believes boys need physical play, says Jordan is always on his skateboard or scooter and played rugby for the first time this year.

"That gives you so much pleasure as a parent - to see them try new things and be happy with the results. If you can give your child confidence and life skills, there's nothing they can't achieve as adults."

Taking small risks makes them aware of "what's a fair and reasonable thing to do and what's a little bit stupid," she adds.

And being on hand does not necessarily prevent accidents anyway - 4-year-old Ethan recently jumped out of the learner's swimming pool and into a whirlpool on his own.

"I was carrying bags and didn't quite catch him. A lifeguard got him out. But that doesn't mean I'll never take him to the pool again."

So how do families find a balance?

Experts agree that parents need to identify real dangers without preventing children from exploring.

Ian Grant says children should be taught to take "smart risks", weighing up the best and worst things that might happen.

Others, like Prof Richie Poulton, director of the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Research Unit, say that giving children challenges is important but so is making sure they have the skills to handle them.

Poulton, 46 and father of a 7-year-old, says today's parents are exposed to all sorts of messages about risk but it is difficult to tell if the perception of increased danger is reality.

Perhaps reassuringly, he says the effects of overprotective parents are detectable but "not huge".

"If you experience overprotection, it's not going to set you up for all sorts of problems down the track . . . We're far more malleable, adaptable and resilient than people often think."

And in terms of cocooning our kids, he is not sure the picture is much unlike when he was a boy growing up in Christchurch.

Children may not be exposed to some activities their parents were but there is a whole new set to deal with, only one of which is the Internet.

When he was a child, life was simpler and the options for leisure time were significantly truncated - boys generally played rugby and cricket.

"Now you can do anything under the sun."

Today's children may live in a world far removed from the one in which their parents grew up.

But some would say the challenges they face are just different, not fewer.




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