In praise of benign neglect

Parents have a really important role in helping to connect kids with nature and the outdoors, writes play expert Tim Gill

©NTPL-Britainonview-Rod Edwards

©NTPL-Britainonview-Rod Edwards

Parents are routinely lambasted for keeping their children indoors. Yet they are also first in the firing line if they do let their kids outside and anything goes wrong. How can they find their way past this dilemma?

There are far too many people trying to tell parents how to bring up their kids, and I do not intend to join them. What is more, our whole society has a problem with risk aversion. The issue cannot simply be laid at the feet of parents. That said, they can either be part of the problem, or part of the solution. It is helpful to start by finding common ground that everyone can agree on.

Growing up is, at heart, a transfer of power from adults to children. We do them no favours by starving them of any chance to take responsibility for themselves. As Judith Hackitt – chair of the Health and Safety Executive no less – has said: “the creeping culture of risk aversion and fear of litigation puts at risk our children’s education and preparation for adult life.” One boy quoted on the BBC website put it more bluntly. “Kids should be allowed to experiment and try things,” he said. “Otherwise when they grow up they’ll make very stupid mistakes from not getting enough experience at childhood.”

It is not mere nostalgia for us grown-ups to recall the places where we played as children (usually out of doors and out of sight of adults, and often in wild, exciting locations) and the things we did. We cannot and should not try to recreate a carbon copy of our own childhoods – but we can and should remind ourselves of the value of a taste of freedom and adventure.

We also need to put the risks in perspective, and avoid the paralysing trap of ‘worst first’ thinking. Nothing grabs our attention quite like fear. The media knows this, and so should every parent. That does not mean being callous or negligent when we hear about child tragedies. But it does mean taking a reality check.

If you are a parent struggling with this territory, I invite you to try the following. When your child climbs a little higher than you are comfortable with, pause for a moment before stepping in, and see how they get on. When your kids argue or fight, ask them to sort things out for themselves. When, on a family day out, they explore the park or the woods that little bit further, practice using your peripheral vision rather than your vocal chords. In sum, see if you can sign up to that most invaluable of parental techniques: the lost art of benign neglect.

Tim Gill writes on childhood and blogs at his website or you can follow him on twitter

9 thoughts on “In praise of benign neglect

  1. Pingback: National Trust shares my plea for benign neglect | Rethinking Childhood

  2. A nice piece Tim, very difficult territory. As Chairman of the Play Safety Forum it is one of my regrets that we do not really have parent representation on the Forum, although of course most of us have either been or still are parents in our own right. I think that remembering one’s own childhood and what one enjoyed and the risks that one took out of sight, the excitement and the achievement they gave should be the key guidence to parents. And if they weren’t allowed to, then remember the frustration and envy one felt for those who were. As a Grandparent, all I can say to parents is good luck and best wishes. Robin Sutcliffe

    • Robin, I’m a parent of a 5yr old Year 1 boy.

      I have good memories of a childhood (41 – 30 years ago!!) of being able to roam freely and take risks (probably without my parents knowledge) and I’d like to give my son as much of that freedom as possible. We let him climb trees as high as he can, encourage him to ‘have a go’ at everything, let him get muddy and experiment.

      I’d be very happy to be on your forum (I’ve had a quick look at the Play England website). Feel free to email me.

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  4. I’ve found that asking people to consider how children learn to ride a bike often produces a light bulb moment for them – it certainly did for me when I was trying to summarise the risk-benefit equation in Quality in Play.
    Riding a bike can’t really be taught, and the stabilisers have to come off sometime. But we as a society seem to accept that bumps and scrapes and even worse are well worth the benefit of being able to cycle.

  5. Reblogged this on Science on the Land and commented:
    argylesock says… I’m grateful to timr of Green Living London for drawing attention to Outdoor Nation. I’m grateful to the people who took me on Dawn Chorus walks when I was 8, who let me roam the lanes of Surrey alone when I was 9, who helped me to skin a dead mole we found when I was 10. That was how I grew up and now look.

  6. I feel so fortunate I grew up in the middle of Somerset surrounded by space and opportunity to do exactly as Tim states: get things wrong, and think independently of ways to problem solve. This is something I feed back into my practice as a Forest School Leader – giving the children the chance to figure it out, explore and think of answers before we adults jump in and do it for them. I think children get a real sense of empowerment from this.

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