‘Stop running with that in your mouth or you’ll trip over and die!’ So yelled a mother to her child in a shopping centre last week. Maybe she’d just had way too many coffees that morning. Or maybe she hadn’t had time to drink her very necessary morning cup because she was too busy threatening her kids with death if they failed to acquiesce with her requests to eat their cereal. After all, if a lollipop was capable of infanticide, who knows what disaster an uneaten bowl of breakfast cereal was likely to unleash…
And funnily enough, the child with the lollipop planted firmly in its right cheek continued to tear between nervous shoppers’ laden trolleys and screech at the top of its lungs despite the well intentioned warnings of its hapless, caffeine-deprived mother.
Sometimes fear works, and sometimes it doesn’t. Clearly, this was an example of when it didn’t.
And even though she gave me a laugh, I’m in no way condemning the mother for her methods of discipline. I’m sure all parents, in desperation, have at one time or another used a threat to reign in the behaviour of their wayward offspring, if not of death then at least of permanent physical impairment.
Like the one my parents used to try about the wind changing and my face staying in whatever ridiculous contortion I had it in at the time.
But that one stopped working on me when I was about three, as it should have, given the absurdity of the warning. Similarly, it appeared that threats of death had ceased to be effective on Lollipop Boy. But at least my parents had somewhere to go after I’d figured out that no southerly change was going to render my face akin to the elephant man. Shopping Centre Mother had left herself no room to move. She’d threatened the ultimate. She had no hope with this kid.
However, maybe it wasn’t only that she was attempting to curb her spirited lad’s antics in centre court. Maybe the sight of her child running with a stick in its mouth really did conjure for her images of Jnr coming a cropper on someone’s trolley and choking to death on his sweet treat.
On a trip to the beach last summer, I observed one of our friends become riddled with anxiety at the sight of his little one running in thongs.
‘Please don’t run in thongs, you’ll fall over,’ came the fretful warning.
I wondered if I was being irresponsible for allowing Britt to do the same. After a moment’s consideration, I decided that the possibility of falling over in thongs was probably not much more than falling over at any other time. And hey, they were kids filled with excited anticipation about getting into the surf on a hot day. Who was I to ruin that for the sake of a grazed knee?
So I said nothing.
I also said nothing when on a recent outing, Concerned Friend Nº 2 ordered his children (along with mine) to stop running down a cement path during a game of tips.
The children’s delighted squeals quietened momentarily as they considered the warning, then promptly wound up again as they collectively decided it was worth the risk. Concerned Friend Nº 2 again requested in an increasingly persuasive tone that his children stop. Britt looked at me for a similar request, and when she received only a smile in return, she continued to run.
Yet another pal was recently reluctant to leave her baby slumbering in a car parked within metres of a group of responsible adults in case a bee flew threw the gap in the open window and stung her. I assumed she was having a laugh until I saw the concerned look on her face and realised she wasn’t.
Frank Furedi’s book Culture of Fear outlines the way in which children in our society are portrayed as permanently at risk of danger. If it’s not running in thongs or becoming the victim of treacherous bees, it’s peanut allergies and stranger danger. Furedi believes that our society has adopted the ‘one false move and you’re dead’ approach to child safety, and that the use of fear to promote a variety of safety messages has become the widely accepted norm.
In the United States and Britain, Furedi says that the concern for the security of children has necessitated a major reorganisation of the experience of childhood. The ‘stranger danger’ message has rendered simple childhood practices like walking to school with friends a risky endeavour. FBI statistics reveal that in the USA, fewer than 100 children a year are kidnapped by strangers. That’s around 0.000034% of the population. However, a study conducted in Ohio found that 50% of schoolchildren expected to be kidnapped. Furedi believes that scare campaigns like the ‘stranger danger’ initiative help to create climates of near hysteria.
Last month two students from my daughter’s primary school were seriously assaulted in a park close to the school. The teachers delivered the stranger danger message to the pupils, and newsletters communicated to parents the necessity of talking about safety with our kids. Britt reacted by having nightmares about ‘baddies’ chasing her and being unable to run away or scream for help.
While a horrendous incident like this one makes the threat of danger feel close to home for everyone involved, it can also generate panic within the community disproportionate to the risk. My husband and I did sit down and discuss this incident with our daughter. But as well as talking about being mindful of her personal safety where ‘strangers’ were concerned, we also reminded her that the majority of people out in the community are not looking to hurt or kidnap children. We don’t want her to feel as though she is constantly vulnerable and unsafe in her world.
In their book Helping Your Anxious Child, Ronald Rapee and colleagues state that anxiety is the most common problem experienced by children of all ages. As well as causing disruptions in a child’s life, childhood anxiety can lead to more serious problems like depression later in life. Because children learn to behave by observing others, the authors point out that parents can help to reduce their child’s anxiety by modelling realistic thinking. With this is mind, parents who adopt the very unrealistic ‘one false move and your dead’ attitude could surely be safeguarding their children’s physical safety to the detriment of their emotional health.
As well as being anxiety-inducing for children, this hyper-vigilant attitude to safety can make us parents uneasy too. Constantly feeling on guard and suspicious of what unknown danger might be lurking around the next corner can hardly be good for our mental health.
A psychologist once challenged me to step outside my comfort zone when it came to supervising my daughter playing outdoors. Britt had been born with congenital hip dysplagia, and after a lengthy hospital stay and many surgical procedures, I felt anxious whenever she was climbing on play equipment or anywhere else a fall was possible. Over time, I learnt to surrender some of my control in these situations and give Britt more opportunity to test her own boundaries where climbing was concerned. Initially it was very difficult to stop myself from calling out words of advice and safety reminders. But as I saw her confidence and skills develop, I relaxed a bit and so did she. Freeing myself from anxiety was extremely liberating for both of us.
I have since tried to apply a similar philosophy to many areas of child rearing; whether it’s allowing Britt to go up to the kiosk at our local beach to buy her own hot chips, or something as trivial as refraining from shouting, ‘Be careful!’ as she’s about to jump from a height. For me it’s about attempting to let Britt explore her own world without my anxieties becoming a part of her mindset too.
I’m not talking about purposely putting my child at risk, here. Rather, about challenging those often unrealistic ‘what if’ thoughts we have as parents, and giving her a bit more room to move within safe, but not completely ‘risk-proof’ boundaries.
Furedi believes that giving children the opportunity to experience unsupervised activities is crucial to their development. He says these instances allow children to make mistakes and learn from them, and also to acquire important social skills. ‘Playing, imagining and even getting into trouble contribute to that unique sense of adventure which has helped society to forge ahead.
A society that loses that sense of adventure and ambition does so at its peril, and yet that is precisely a possible outcome…where socialising children consists, above all, of inculcating fears in them.’