Sunday, 3 October 2010


One particular thing I notice these days that is so different from when I was a child is the growth of an almost unhealthy pre-occupation with security. I do not just mean national and international security due to terrorism, although I will come to that later, I mean ordinary, every day activities. When I was a boy, no adult worried about me climbing trees or going off cycling on my own for miles. Indeed, when I was four, I climbed onto the roof of a greenhouse in the garden. Surprise, surprise, it would not take my weight and I bear the scar on my leg to this day! I am sure that had my parents seen what I was doing they would have stopped me but they did not because they felt it unnecessary to keep watching me all the time – “just in case”. The fall and the cut resulting from it were painful but no permanent damage was done and it certainly taught me not to climb on glass roofs again!

I and my friends would have died had our parents insisted on accompanying us to school every day. We walked, sometimes alone, sometimes together with friends but never with our parents. It was perhaps a thirty minute walk and there were potential dangers on the way; not just ill-intentioned adults (although there seemed to be an absence of those, then) but a canal and two busy roads to cross. I recall no-one being hurt – oh one or two ventured too near the canal, fell in and emerged wet and smelly but that was the worst that happened. Today, even quite grown up schoolchildren are driven to their schools by over-anxious parents and local authorities are so in fear of legal actions against them for negligence that they have removed any equipment from children’s playgrounds that carries the faintest risk of injury.

What has happened to us? As we have become more prosperous, we seem also to have become more fearful. Why? Life has never been and never will be risk free. Indeed it appears logical that it is through the risks with which we are faced and what we do to meet them that we learn. If life were completely risk free I believe it would become anodyne and uninteresting. I realise that anxious parents will point to the large number of attacks on unaccompanied children and the presence of various ne’er-do-wells in their community. There have always been sick people in communities but in former times we seemed to be able to handle them rather better. Perhaps, paradoxically, we cared more then? The change in attitude is epitomised by the equally fundamental change in adult behaviour towards the children of others and the attitude of the law in this area. When I was a boy, if you dared to misbehave in any way in the presence of an adult, you were reprimanded there and then. Indeed if there was a policeman about when you misbehaved, you would probably receive a clip around the ear and be sent on your way. If you dared to tell your parents about it, they would give you another clip on the assumption that you had deserved what you got from the policeman. Today even parents hesitate before disciplining their children in this way.

I can just hear some people muttering about sadism and licence to practice it when you are in uniform or are a parent but it wasn’t like that. There was a mutual sense of pride in our communities and that included how children behaved. Children are learning to be adults and they need rules to guide them. It is surely our responsibility to not only set such rules but also to supervise them? Today bullies and the like are arraigned before children’s courts and wear their arrest and trial like a badge and become folk heroes as a result, going on to become much worse as adults. Formerly, most such bullies had their violent tendencies knocked out of them as it were, although some did not. I am citing this merely to show it could well be a reason for the growth of parental fear and our preoccupation with security. There is a big downside to all this in my opinion. Because so much risk is removed from the pathway of children, when they grow up they either yearn to take any kind of risk, especially anti-social ones, or they become mentally incapable of overcoming even the smallest risk placed in their way. They have been so coddled they cannot accept the normal risks of life.

We seem to have abdicated personal responsibility for acceptable behaviour in our communities and handed it to officialdom, just as we have with our response to terrorism. We set up official bodies to oversee national security etc., and then wonder why so many petty regulations emerge! Give people an official title and they will feel obliged to justify their existence by introducing all kinds of rules, whether they help or hinder the policy they have been appointed to administer. I will not repeat what I said about our reaction to terrorists in an earlier blog but there is a strong case for arguing we have made the terrorists’ job much easier by over-reacting, by becoming too fearful. Maybe it is time for us to take stock and re-examine the whole question in the light of experience.

Should we perhaps encourage more risk taking by our children and become less anxious for their safety? This does not involve failing to warn them about risks beforehand and giving them advice on handling them By accepting more openly that life has risks we may begin to produce a far less fearful future generation! That wonderful person Helen Keller once pronounced on the matter of life and its risks and remember what she had to overcome to make her way in the world; this is what she said:-

“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.”

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