Initiation, Vol 25, March – May 08

He rounds the bend in matching cycle gear, looking streamlined under his metallic red helmet and wrap-around Bollé sunglasses, decidedly intent on the path in front of him. Behind, a shrill voice calls, ‘Be careful! Not too fast!’ It’s no wonder—he’s cruising well over 1.5 kilometres an hour—on his tricycle. Phew! Thank God for the helmet and protective eye gear.

It’s one of those Alice-in-Wonderland moments for me—and there seems to be more and more of those moments by the way—where ‘normal’ life begins to look slightly absurd.

I remember the first time I had that kind of moment. I was around 12-years old visiting my grandmother in England. We were in a department store when I saw it—a child attached to his mother with a dog leash. At first I thought they were playing some sort of petshop game together. Then I realised—no, this mum was serious.

Fortunately leashes have not caught on like the miniature metallic wrap-around Bollés, but the fear for our children’s wellbeing certainly has. Risk-averse, hyper-concerned, controlling, and over-involved, the new breed of parent lurks anxiously near every jungle gym, over every page of homework, alongside every playground argument. It seems there is not a bruise we can’t prevent, a heartbreak we can’t fend off, or an inconvenience we can’t deter. Armed with a can-do spirit, the likes of which would bring our own mothers to their knees, we have somehow learned to protect our children from almost every discomfort known to mankind—from chores, to scraped knees, to sunburns. Present company included, of course.


While walking with my 12-year-old son to soccer sign-on this morning, I had an epiphany: I am definitely one of those parents—well, at least some of the time. It came to me as I realised I had organised the entire occasion for him. I had found out what day and time the sign-on was, I had filled out the paperwork, arranged to arrive at the right time, stood in line and even carried his new soccer shirt home and put it away neatly in his drawer. Sheesh! I think this habit on my part is the spill-over from my old attachment parenting days, when I carried, breastfed and co-slept with my children. But the needs of a two-year-old are very different from the needs of a twelve-year-old.

It’s not just that, though. There’s a whole culture of cottonwooling and parental hyper-extension out there. The invitation—or shall I say the dictates—to over-function as parents (and allow our children to under-function) is everywhere, from the padded playgrounds, to the amassment of after-school activities, to the near sell-out attendance of every swimming carnival.

And the pressure to conform is immense. My son takes every opportunity to remind me that he is the only one in his class who has to do house or garden work. And I’m the only mother who doesn’t watch every single soccer game. I used to think that he was just kidding, then I discovered he was right. He was the only one, and I was the only one, save for one or two others.

So I started to check things out for myself. Was this just my own personal bad movie, or was something really happening out there? I started in my local neighbourhood, on weekend mornings when the lawn mowers begin their a.m. drone. Surely there I would find young teenage boys doing some yard work. Nope, not one. In fact I was curious to see that nearly every mower was followed by someone over 60. Remember the days when a boy was seen in nearly every yard, raking, mowing, or weeding? I certainly noticed it as a teenage girl, those guys who grew tanned and strong over summer, who wore their shirt on their head like some kind of young urban pharaoh.

Then I went to the playground, where there were as many adults on the slide as there were children. Some clustered at the top to make sure take-off was safe, others at the bottom to oversee soft landings. And even some in the middle, assuring a smooth journey—a veritable flight crew for each person under one-metre tall. I remember these playgrounds when my own children were very young. I used to love spreading out a blanket, and diving into the novel I had spent the last 11 months trying to finish. But then I began to feel the looks. You know, those looks you get which imply you are nothing less than a monster. I had let the flight crew down.

Then there were those painful early primary years at my children’s Steiner school. Not only did I make the mistake of wearing black way too often, but I was absolutely hopeless at helping my children finish their armloads of weaving, braiding, knitting, sewing and basket making. ‘Can’t I just do this in Photoshop?’ I cracked to my daughter’s kindergarten teacher. She didn’t smile. At open day she got her revenge—there on every wall, in every display were the gorgeous works of, well, not really the children, but their parents. It was a poignant moment for me, a moment when the pressure to do all, be all, for my children came down hard.

I remember how my daughter was one of the first to take the bus to school, while many other mums drove their children, parked their cars, walked their children inside (carrying their children’s backpacks) and even sat down with them for the first part of the lesson. The message to me was that I was ‘apparently too busy for my child.’ My daughter got the same message. ‘Mummy, why don’t you drive me to school like all the other mums?’ How do I tell her that part of the way I love her is not only to be there for her, but also, when appropriate, to not be there for her? She has her very own life, and it is not for me to live it. In fact to deny her that right, is to deny her everything.

‘Behold the sanitised childhood,’ writes Hara Estroff Marano in Psychology Today. ‘With few challenges all their own, kids are unable to forge their creative adaptations to the normal vicissitudes of life. That not only makes them risk-averse, it makes them psychologically fragile, riddled with anxiety. In the process they’re robbed of identity, meaning and a sense of accomplishment, to say nothing of a shot at real happiness.’

It seems to me we are afraid. We clamber up the slide not only because we fear their fall, but we fear to miss a minute of their time. We’re afraid the kids might grow up to resent us, to tell us what we probably told our own parents, ‘You weren’t there for me.’ Or worse, maybe they will grow up not even liking us. We fear losing the friendship and losing control.

We’re scared of school buses, schools, teachers, babysitters, and even grandmas and grandpas who might not parent in exactly the way we would. We’re scared of adversity, risk, danger, and the unknown.

Hovered over and cheered across every finish line, our children, ironically, are getting less support than they need, through our over-support.

Andrew Fuller, a clinical psychologist who specialises in the wellbeing of young people, echoes these sentiments. ‘We’re having this double-whammy effect,’ he said in the Sydney Morning Herald recently. ‘We’re cosseting our children, but at the same time we’re not spending enough time with them to teach them what to trust and what not to trust. There is going to be a massive divide in the society between kids who have had life experiences and have been able to set goals, persist, struggle and sometimes come a cropper and sometimes succeed and then kids who have basically had their whole life fed to them through the electronic media.’

In protecting them from failure, we deny them the opportunity to learn persistence. In protecting them from risk, we deny them courage. In protecting them from hard work, we deny them strength. In protecting them from aloneness, we deny them independence. And in protecting them from heartbreak, we deny them resilience.

Gever Tulley is founder of the Tinkering School, a weeklong camp in the United States where primary-school-aged kids learn how to build, solve problems, use new materials, and hack old ones for new purposes. ‘I put power tools in the hands of second graders,’ he says. ‘People seem to think that any item sharper than a golf ball is too sharp for children under the age of ten. So when does this trend stop?’ When we round every corner and eliminate every sharp, pokey bit in the world, children hurt themselves, he says. ‘We cut off opportunities for children to learn about the world around them.’

He gives an excellent short talk on the TED Talks website (see about five dangerous things you should encourage your kid do. Play with fire, own a pocketknife and—gasp—drive a car, are among them. Yes, drive a car—you know, like we used to do on our uncle’s farm, when we either sat on Dad’s lap, or, if we were big enough to reach the pedals, we could drive the whole family around the paddock.

A couple of years ago, my son played on the worst soccer team in the town. Each and every weekend, they were completely and utterly thrashed. At the end of every defeat, a crowd of well-meaning parents (again, myself included) rushed anxiously around the down-cast boys. ‘It’s OK,’ we pressed hurriedly, before a single emotion could be felt. ‘It’s how you play the game that counts.’ And anyway, being good Rainbow Region parents, we never wanted to impose ‘competitiveness’ into their game.

Like monks we chanted the mantra after each and every game, week after week after week, until finally the boys began to join in on the chorus. ‘It’s OK, mum, 76 to zero is OK. It’s how we played the game that counts.’ Then one day I felt a pang. Something wasn’t right. I mean, yes, it’s great that the kids learned to swallow defeat, be good sports, and know that we loved them even though they lost. But something important was missing. They never had a chance to feel disappointment. To feel rage, sadness, frustration, or even feel miffed at their fellow team mates for spacing out during half the game. In the soft, safe, cosy warm environment of our emotional protection, they lost more than a game, they lost initiative. And so, the remainder of their season became defined by that loss of initiative. It was worse than losing 76 to zero. It became void of learning, of self-responsibility, and self-reflection.

Initiative is the ability to act and make decisions without the help or advice of other people. With so much of our children’s lives navigated for them, they are missing out on learning initiative.

A teacher-friend recently told me about a frustrating moment when he had listed the day’s homework on the board. He accidentally wrote the wrong page that corresponded to the lesson number. The lesson number was on the left hand page, not the right as he had written. With books open, virtually all of the students remarked that the lesson number was not on the right hand page. ‘Where is it?’ they all chimed. ‘They simply did not have the ability to look over on the opposite page. They wanted, and indeed were used to, being told exactly how to solve their dilemma,’ he said.

The word initiative is related to initiation, which seems to be what is increasingly missing in post-modern childhood. Every day, in hundreds of small, and not so small ways, an important initiation is lost. Except sometimes, in rare moments when reality cracks open, and by some grace, a child is left to fall free into his own journey.

One of those moments happened today. My nine-year-old daughter and her friend rode her pony down to the river. It was her first time to ride without adult supervision. I told her, when she could bridle alone, she could ride alone. That being the same guideline I myself was given when I was a young rider. Several hours later, I decided to check on them.

There in the soft shady forest, were two laughing girls and a pony—wet from swimming and blissfully absorbed in their own company. An initiation had occurred.

And it was without me.

You can read more of Kelly’s writing at EQUUS, here.


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