Idle Parenting vs Cotton Wool Children

How can we provide an environment in which children feel safe without turning them into cotton wool children, who are afraid of their own shadow? a question we’re not asking ourselves often enough. Instead, we  are putting too much effort onto providing a ‘safe’ environment. But a safe environment is not only unlikely to occur but also best avoided. However, providing them with a protective environment is  our responsibility along with assisting them in feeling safe.  By focusing our efforts towards equipping the children with essential life skills that will help them stay safe and in control in any kind of environment, we’ll empower children to live a happy, secure and as self reliant  childhood and a likewise adulthood.

I’ll answer the question based on my experience with my two 6 and 7 years old children who, despite living in an atmosphere of relative safety and protection, are not feeling safe enough on their own, outside the family home.

It’s not only down to us, the parents to help children feel safe. The whole adult world should be working at it too. The ‘adult world’ includes many agents that have a role in safeguarding the children and a duty to create a protective environment for children. One such agent is the government who must provide legislation that facilitates and promotes and, where necessary, enforces children’s rights to a protective environment. Other agents with a duty to safeguard children such as schools, social services, police, doctors, parents, children’s organizations must operate in accordance with the law and, where necessary, influence the process of law making in order to create or improve the protective environment because this a collective responsibility.

To create a protective environment, the adult world must prioritize identifying children at risk of abuse; reducing child poverty and social exclusion and joining up different agents’ efforts to protect children at all times, from abuse, exploitation, crime, neglect and violence. Although, the adult world’s efforts to build a protective environment is continuously improving and does achieve some positive
results, cases of children being victims of violence, crime and abuse are still being reported regularly in the press which could mean that focusing on the environment (i.e, banning the sale of alcohol and tobacco to underage persons ), when trying to create a protective environment is not enough.
More is needed and that is shifting the focus on equipping the children with tools for staying safe. An equipped child, knows his parents and carers phone number and addresses by heart, knows his rights, understands that should any threat come his way, there are people and organizations that he can turn to for help, he is not afraid to talk to strangers but knows to keep a reasonable distance from them, ( i.e not getting in their cars of houses) and much more. Knowledge and information are vital tools for assisting children to stay safe. The adult world should ensure “that children know their rights, and… given the vital information and skills they need to protect themselves from abuse and exploitation.” (Childhood under Threat report 2004). Campaigns aimed to reach and inform everyone, especially children, about issues such as domestic violence, bullying and the help that is available for victims are important. Childline is a free phone helpline for children with problems. Their phone number should be taught in schools and memorized by all children. The National Charity Kidscape encourages self reliance and aims to prevent harm by providing practical skills.  Their street sense leaflet “Dos and Don’ts” is an excellent example of how information can encourage the children to enjoy going out while taking responsibility for their own safety. Life Education Center, focuses on informing children about drug and health issues which empowers young people to make informed choices. These organizations aimed at safeguarding children are part of the protective environment. Informing children of their existence and accessibility are a way to assist children to feel safe and to give them confidence that, whatever the danger, there is help available to them.
The different meanings of ‘safe’.
Being safe’ for a child means living in a ‘safe’ environment. At its best, a safe environment would protect children against other risks such as traffic, bullying, alcohol, tobacco, peer pressure, dangerous games, fire and deep water, and so on.A completely safe environment is not recommended, as it deprives children from exposure to risk and opportunities of learning to solve problems and deal with difficult situations.
Staying safe is the child’s ability to deal with his environment, safe or not. Once a child is equipped with skills for staying safe, he will also feel safer. When asked about their fears, children and young people reported fears such as: being pulled in a car, being followed, watched, offered drugs, shot, and attacked by a stranger. Many of the fears expressed do not correlate with actual risks. I propose a problem solving approach to childhood fears. Fears and anxieties are seen as problems that should be discussed, possible solutions found, best solution picked and applied, outcomes monitored and discussed again.  Such a problem solving approach, once learned and used several times, can become a good habit that can assist children deal with all their fears (justified or not) and feel safe.
Parents are anxious that their children could be victims of kidnapping, accidents, abuse, bullying.  To reduce their anxiety and allow their children more outdoor play and more freedom, parents are hoping that relevant agents will …reduce the speed limits on residential roads; …report child abduction responsibly; put authority figures in places where children want to play.
As good as these solutions sound, I think that parents must reflect on their own anxieties about contemporary society and accept that eliminating all risks around their children is not only impossible but also detrimental for the child because such efforts is depriving the child of valuable opportunities to learn to overcome difficulties, solve problems, develop resilience and stay safe without adult assistance.
An authority figure strategically placed in a playground for example, would feel obliged to restrict children’s freedom to engage in a life threatening activity such as tree climbing. Tree climbing is just one of those risk taking activities that are important to children’s development and should not be restricted, but encouraged. In Scandinavian countries grown-ups tend to encourage dangerous play; primary schools encourages children to climb higher than the day before.  As a result, those children feel safer and are more disposed to take manageable risks, without irrational fear.
Once, in the London underground, I sat next to a 9 years old girl. She was alone. The young girl explained to me that she got herself to and from school everyday on the Tube. She knew what station and platform because she had been shown by her mother and father who were both at work. She counted the stations so she knew that she had to get off after five stops. My initial thought was that the girl’s parents were irresponsible, but after more careful consideration I started suspecting that  it is our well meaning intentions of keeping children ‘safe’ that actually limits their ability to be safe.  
I suggest that such ‘irresponsible’ parenting should be imitated. The little girl, having previously been informed about the dangers of public spaces and the ways to deal with such dangers and taught the way to school and back, was being exposed to manageable risk and allowed to take good care of herself, which can only lead to building up confidence, independence, self esteem and last but not least, feeling safe.
Who was your child meant to become?    When asked in a school survey what would help them stay safe from dangers, only 5% of children listed knowing “road safety and your Green Cross Code“. Many children listed staying with an adult, family or known people and not talking with strangers, as ways to stay safe. This shows that children should be allowed more freedom and be encouraged to be more self reliant. We, the adults, used to have more right and duty of looking after ourselves than we allow our children. Consequently, our liberties, abilities and feelings of safety were higher than our children’s. This is a clear hint that the grown ups  should let go of its fears and anxieties, which are statistically unjustified and gradually start to allow and trust the children to play in the park unsupervised, take themselves to and back from school, safely cross the street, protect themselves from the dangers that are lurking about where least expected, regardless of adults’ efforts  to prevent any harm and sanitize the environment.
KidSafe Home Safety ProductsTherefore, we adults should ask ourselves more often how we can assist children in feeling safe. We will find that, in addition to providing a protective environment, equipping the children with information and knowledge and problem solving skills; gradually entrusting them with the task of keeping themselves safe; exposing them to manageable risks;   allowing them a little more freedom are just few of the ways in which we can help them not only feel safe, but also live a happy, secure and self reliant childhood.

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2 thoughts on “Idle Parenting vs Cotton Wool Children

  • Emma

    Very well written article. And I couldn’t agree more. Kids need to be left alone to do their own thing a little bit more.

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