Deliberately Putting Kids At Risk

Friday, June 19, 2009 8:14 | Filed in Life

…is this a good idea?

From the title, you’d probably assume no, but allow me to lead you down this road for a few minutes. Is it okay to deliberately put kids at risk where we have assessed the risk as low, and even if the risk does occur, it’s extremely unlikely to cause serious harm?

Here I’m maybe talking about kids playing conkers in the school yard. There’s a risk a piece of conker shrapnel might go into a child’s eye, but even if it does, it’s unlikely to cause serious harm. And it’s fun to play. Is that okay, or would you ban conkers and/or insist kids wear safety goggles?

What about a secondary class of risks: one where there is a greater chance of serious harm. Would you allow your kids to go horse-riding? Sure, there are maybe benefits: fresh air, respect for animals, confidence, physical activity and so on, but around 100 horse-riders die per year in accidents (including traffic related ones) — more than three times as many than who die from Ecstasy. So horse-riding carries a low but not negligible risk of death or serious brain injury.

If you allow your kids to go horse-riding, you’re either ignorant of that risk, or, more likely, you’ve made a mental assessment of the risks and benefits, and you’ve decided that despite the small risk, the child is more likely to benefit from the experience. The same would apply to kayaking, swimming lessons (where there is an inherent risk in learning to swim, but kids who can’t swim have an elevated risk whenever they are near water) and so on.

Now increased safety rules are, in general, a good thing. We don’t want kids climbing up huge climbing frames without some sort of softer surface underneath (bark chips, rubberised surfaces etc) as opposed to concrete slabs.

However, some teachers believe that some of the safety rules are going too far:

Nearly half of teachers believe the health and safety culture in schools is damaging children’s learning and development, a survey suggests.

When questioned by Teachers TV, teachers complained about a five-page briefing on using glue sticks and being told to wear goggles to put up posters.

BBC News

Now I presume the goggles/poster thing is because if the poster falls, you might get a paper cut or scratch from it. If it falls and hits your eye — and you don’t blink in time — it could maybe damage the eye. So there is a risk here. But could that risk not be ameliorated by simply being more careful when putting up the poster?

After all, if you fall down wearing safety goggles, there’s presumably a risk that if the safety goggles make contact with the floor first, they could be rammed into the child’s head with considerable force. Surely that is also a risk? Wearing safety goggles is a risk: under most circumstances (e.g. in a chemistry lab) the small risk of falling with the safety goggles is much, much less than the risk of getting potassium permanganate in your eyes, so that’s why you wear them. But for carefully putting up a poster? I’m not so sure…

BTP with bloodied lip (flickr)

On the other hand, what about if you allow kids to run around in the playground in icy, snowy, or wet conditions? You can find that the child falls over and hurts themselves. That’s presumably not a good thing, and you could simply say that no running in the playground is allowed — or at least under these conditions. But then you’re taking away a lot of the fun from children, you’re taking away a certain amount of their exercise.

I’m quite happy for kids to play in the snow, or even in the rain. Where the ground is icy, I’d rather that people put grit down to melt it. That’s where I would draw that personal line for my children. However, when I was a child myself, I would frequently get up to running speed and then hit a patch of ice and glide along it. Wheeeee!. Great fun. Not exactly safe (you’d expect to fall over and get bruised some of the time) but great fun.

And so when I picked up my son from school last winter with the bloody lip from having fallen over when playing in the playground, then — given that no serious injury had occurred — my attitude was “not to worry, these things happen”. Because I didn’t want to be the pushy parent who forced the school into adopting draconian health and safety procedures by kicking up a big fuss about it. I wouldn’t want my child to be stopped from playing in the snow because someone else had fallen over. And those things do happen. Kids can fall over in the snow outside school too.

(Of course, had the school been allowing something I considered inherently dangerous — chainsaw juggling, for example — then I might well have kicked up a bit of a fuss)

So we’ve got to expose our children to a certain amount of risk. They have to live; to learn. It’s about managing those risks. Reducing their exposure to serious risks, but allowing them to learn from smaller ones. Whilst I’m not recommending geophagia, the fact that surfaces aree so sanitized today, and kids are forced to wash their hands after playing outside means that that they get less exposure to soil bacteria. And of course soil bacteria can boost the immune system — but of course there’s also the risk of toxoplasmosis or similar if there was something nasty in that particular soil area.

I’d not suggest going as far as the Australian father featured in this joke:

An Australian mum comes out of her house into the garden, to see Australian Dad sitting in a garden chair, reading a newspaper and drinking a few tinnies, but their two-year old son is nowhere to be seen.

“Bruce!”, says Sheila, “Where’s Bruce Junior?”

“Oh, he’s over there,” says Bruce, waving an arm vaguely, “Playing on the motorway.”

“What? What if he gets hurt?”

Bruce rolls his eyes. “Sheila, the kid’s gotta learn!”

So it’s all about finding the right balance. That’s what parents are supposed to do, and it’s what schools, acting in loco parentis, should be doing as well. Finding that balance might not be easy, and it might mean that one set of rules doesn’t fit all, but I don’t recall anyone ever telling me that looking after kids would be easy.

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