Bernard Trafford: A risk-averse culture risks denying our children the chance to mature

Royal Grammar School headteacher Bernard Trafford says the modern psyche won't accept that accidents sometimes happen

Children taking part in a conker tournament at school
Children taking part in a conker tournament at school

Who’d be a parent? I was one once, but fortunately grew out of it. In my day job I inevitably witness in enormous numbers the fruits of other people’s attempts at parenting, some better than others!

There are handbooks, of course: but when you’re busy being a mum or dad there’s no time to read those books. Most of us just muddle through, doing our best. And, to be fair, most of us get it pretty well right most of the time and our children grow up into generally well-adjusted and successful adults.

Still, this coming weekend will see a debate in London, entitled Battle of Ideas. One of the debaters will be Dr David Eberhard, Swedish author of last year’s controversial book How the Children Took Power. Dr Eberhard concluded that his country had created so excessively child-centric an approach that Swedish children had become “porcelain dolls”, too emotionally fragile to be challenged in any way.

We Brits haven’t created porcelain dolls, he says: instead we’re so obsessed with safety that we wrap them in cotton wool, not even letting them cycle or walk to school.

He could be right. Sustrans, the cycling charity, found in a 2010 survey that almost half of children would like to cycle to school: only 4% are allowed to do so. Moreover, Dr Eberhard says that, while young people are knowledgeable about sex, they’re so overprotected that they have no idea about taking physical knocks or dealing with the casual cruelties of everyday life, having had no experience of taking responsibility for themselves.

If he’s right, who’s to blame? Not parents alone: we nowadays inhabit an obsessively risk-averse world.

The Health and Safety Executive is at pains to stress that it’s not against risk, merely requiring that risk be assessed and minimised. Yet, amid ill-informed cries of “Health and Safety gone mad”, ancient traditions like rolling cheeses down steep hills are cancelled: headteachers ban conker-fighting; and kids, well, kids just don’t play out like they used to.

It’s tempting to say we should man up, that schools and parents should simply be more robust. But when things go wrong, there is a horrendous outcry. The modern sophisticated psyche will not accept that accidents sometimes happen. Someone has to be responsible: someone must be blamed; and someone has to be compensated.

I admire the people (teachers and others) up and down the land who organise Duke of Edinburgh expeditions, adventurous activities, rock climbing, even rugby matches. All produce occasional injuries, but all are thoroughly risk-assessed and the risks are minimised. So much protective clothing is worn for every activity now, the makers of masks, mouth-guards, body-armour, knee- and elbow-protectors and shin-pads must be making a fortune.

I don’t begrudge any of that, and I’m grateful to all the teachers who fill out those countless forms so that the young can enjoy great experiences and learn from physical challenges. I never tire of saying far fewer life-long memories from a child’s schooldays are drawn from classrooms on a Thursday afternoon than from those cold, wet expeditions in the hills when, inexplicably, the map-reader gets the group 180 degrees out and still five miles from the campsite as darkness falls.

That’s also when young people learn about leadership, which is not about behaving like Rambo or Batman in tough situations but finding the joke to encourage the team on that rain-drenched trek or that losing sports match when spirits are low. The word in the right place, the hand on the shoulder: that’s what children really need to learn about.

My granddad always claimed there’s a providence that protects drunks and small children, both of whom usually emerge from scrapes unscathed. He was right. But if we totally deny that providence and instead reach for the insurance certificate for our comfort, we risk denying our children both a childhood and the chance to mature and prepare for adulthood.


  • Dr Bernard Trafford is Headmaster of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School. The views here are personal.


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