Are helicopter parents bad parents
Childhood researcher: "I don't like the term helicopter parents"
At the Princess Diana Playground in London, which attracts millions of visitors each year, a poster informs parents that dangers are intentional. Australia introduced new standards for playground equipment last fall, urging operators to consider the benefits, not just the dangers, of activities that can lead to injury. Cities in Canada and Sweden are following suit. Today children are considered overprotected, but more and more parents and educators are demanding back the right to risk. Childhood researcher Tim Gill knows why children need a certain degree of danger and freedom of movement.
DEFAULT: According to a UK study, almost ten percent of children between the ages of eight and 16 feel unhappy. At the same time, choices in children's lives had the highest correlation with well-being. Does less daily freedom mean fewer happy children?
Gill: Children value their freedom as much as adults do. They want a choice in how they spend their time. It gives them a sense of who they are and what interests they have - this helps them to become responsible, confident, and capable people.
DEFAULT: In your book "No Fear" you claimed ten years ago that childhood is undermined by risk avoidance. Has your perception changed?
Gill: Awareness that risk aversion is a problem has grown and more and more parents and educators want to encourage a more balanced approach. You can see that in facilities like forest kindergartens and adventure playgrounds that are spreading all over the world. But there is still a long way to go.
DEFAULT: Do children's health and safety concerns reflect real risk? Are children really more at risk today than they were 30 years ago?
Gill: In most high-income countries, children are likely to be safer than ever. But it doesn't feel like that. The media - and increasingly the social ones too - increase awareness of danger by focusing on rare but attention-grabbing incidents. However, there is still one major threat to children that we need to address and that is traffic. Terrifyingly, it is the leading cause of death in children between the ages of ten and 19 worldwide. Fewer children may die in high income countries, but that is mainly because children have withdrawn from the streets.
DEFAULT: In Austria, many families have a trampoline in their garden. But many feel uncomfortable letting their children's friends play in their gardens because they fear accidents could happen for which they will be blamed. Is this fear also a trend?
Gill: In many countries, parents seem less willing to trust other parents - or children - and more afraid of being blamed if things go wrong. Social media also play a role here. Who wants to share their mistakes - no matter how honest or well intentioned - on Facebook? But I think a growing number of parents are demanding that children have a little more freedom.
DEFAULT: Decades ago, children of different ages often went to their favorite places alone or together, without parents. How has that changed and why? Is there still a difference between rural and urban areas?
Gill: The UK saw the biggest decline in child freedoms in the 1980s - before the internet. Many people believe that rural children have more space and freedom than their urban counterparts. But it looks like the opposite might be the case. Children in villages can live far from schools, parks and their friends. Roads can be even more dangerous because they don't have sidewalks or street lights. Public transport is often bad. So if the children cannot be taken by their parents, they are stuck at home.
DEFAULT: Parents now spend much more time looking after their children than previous generations. According to a report by the Future Foundation from 2006, the total has quadrupled in just 25 years, from 25 minutes a day in 1975 to 99 minutes in 2000. Does risk avoidance also play a role here?
Gill: It's not clear why parents spend so much more time looking after children than they used to. But I think parental fear does play a role. Not just the fear of what might happen, but also the fear of being blamed or convicted.
DEFAULT: Where does this fear come from, when did it start? Some sociologists believe that society as a whole has become more anxious in the past few decades.
Gill: Exactly. People of many cultures spend less time outside in parks, streets and public spaces. So when parents look outside their front doors, they say there are fewer people around. We are social animals - we like to be where we can and can be seen. So, of course, empty neighborhoods feel less safe. The good news: There are many inspiring examples of local people coming together to reclaim streets and public spaces - in some cases with the help of the authorities.
DEFAULT: What kind of danger do the children need? Do you need bloody knees too?
Gill: In my work, I distinguish between good and bad risks. Good risks are those that children understand - like the risk of falling from a tree. Bad risks are risks that children cannot easily deal with - like the risk of a fast moving car or a poorly maintained jungle gym. Similarly, we need to distinguish between learning injuries and disasters. Minor injuries that heal easily are a part of growing up - or should be. Even injury prevention experts accept that. Just last week I was at a conference where a Slovenian pediatrician pointed out that life is risky. "Children fall over a thousand times when they learn to walk," she said.
DEFAULT: What if all risk is prevented?
Gill: There is no such thing as a risk-free childhood. Every child who learns to walk or ride a bike takes a risk. And children can injure themselves in the safest of spaces. When we protect children too much, we deprive them of experiences that help them deal with the uncertainties of life. The skills they acquire by overcoming challenges - dealing with conflicts, recovering from failure, solving problems on their own - are even more valuable today than they were in the past. Because if we know one thing for sure about the future, it is that it will be more unpredictable than ever.
DEFAULT: What about the term "helicopter parents"? Does he have his place?
Gill: I don't like the term. Parents are judged by too many people. Different people have different levels of risk tolerance - and that has always been the case. But I do worry about parents putting pressure on schools or communities to make everything super safe. Because that can lead to a boring, non-adventurous childhood for everyone.
DEFAULT: The New York Times recently published an article that UK educators - after decades of collective effort to minimize risk - are now beginning to change that: a school is now experimenting with fire, knives and various tools. Is there a new trend?
Gill: Last week I read that the Duchess of Kent is a fan of outdoor learning. So it's more than a slight shift. It's a growing movement, especially among educators and playground designers. As patron of the UK Forest School Association, I am very excited about this. But there is still a long way to go, especially to reach children and families from poor backgrounds and areas where it is more difficult to get into nature.
DEFAULT: This year you published a white paper entitled "Playing Safe" on the subject of risk, liability and children's games in public spaces. What are the elements of a modern playground for happy children?
Gill: A great playground is unique and suitable for all ages and abilities. It has trees and plants, there are hills, ditches and tunnels that are perfect for games of hide and seek. There's sand and water, and plenty of seating suitable for teenagers - and parents. Because if the parents don't feel comfortable, they go and take the children with them. Quiet places and cozy spaces are also important, and grassy areas large enough for ball games. Equipment like swings and slides are good too - large basket swings and wide embankment slides are the best. (Marietta Adenberger, October 18, 2018)
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