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Project Wild Thing Blog: Risk and Fear

My son Albie (4) is obsessed with anything sharp and dangerous. We have a knife drawer in our kitchen, towards which he consistently gravitates if ever he’s left on his own. We keep telling him that if he goes into the drawer again, sanctions will be imposed. You can imagine the sort of thing – no more ice creams etc.

Last week I caught him in the open drawer. I decided not to stop him. I said that he could touch the knife, but not to touch it on the sharp side. He asked what would happen if he touched the sharp side. I told him his finger might come off. He excitedly asked me what would happen if his finger came off. I said he’d have to have it stitched back on. He loved this idea and wanted to see an example so I turned to our dear friend Google, the perfect source of unsuitable material for small children, and watched Albie’s face light up as pictures of mangled, bloodied fingers filled the screen. We happily watched finger surgery together. It is amazing. The next morning, we were having a relaxed breakfast when Albie mentioned our research to my wife Katie. She didn’t finish her breakfast.

Katie and I have subtly different aims for the children. It is not a problem – we just do. She wants them to be independent but relatively obedient and to have most of their decisions influenced by us. I on the other hand, want them to be curious and regularly a bit reckless. She wants them to fear her imagined fears. She has convinced Ivy in colourful detail that if she steps on the road, a car will “squash her – flat as a pancake”. I want them to be curious about the consequences of their actions. In combination I hope we’ll do OK.

When I was running the Project Wild Thing campaign, we needed strong ideas for ways to encourage parents to take their children outdoors more. Parents are, after all, the guardians of the nation’s front door keys. Many of great ideas emerged but the ones that really stood out were two posters ideas. One said “Give your children the gift of independence” and had an image of two smart-looking children examining worms, and the other said “Rebellious by Nature” and had a picture of wild children jumping into a puddle.

Katie thought the independence idea was much stronger and more appealing to parents. I was really drawn to Rebellious by Nature. I loved the idea of children learning that nature is the one place where they can be free and safe (or safe enough) to do whatever they want.
Is nature safe enough? Some parents believe that no risk is too small to act on. There’s a 1 in 5 million chance of your child being abducted. You might think: right, that’s enough to worry about. Let’s keep them inside. But children are more likely to get killed by an angry pig or cow than be abducted. We need to worry about pigs and cows.

I spoke to Tim Gill, author of No Fear, Growing up in a Risk Averse Society. He knows parents who make their children wear helmets. Not to ride a bike or to rollerblade, but all the time. They are life helmets. They believe that this will protect their child from getting hit by a random falling rock or other potential disasters. Of course the problem is that it also protects children from becoming wise and responsible. Why would you ever duck if you’re used to helmet protection?

I’m not suggesting that we leave children to play on the motorway, and, of course, there are a lot of benefits that have come from health and safety. You wouldn’t trade a childhood 100 years ago for one now – at least not if your only criterion is life-span. But there is a point where it becomes too much. And we are well past that point.
Informed knife-play. That’s what I’m calling for. I know it sounds bad – but it is better than the alternative.

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