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BOOK REVIEW: Growing Up In a Risk Averse Society

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Tim Gill (2007) London: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation; 94 pages
This review by Martha Driessnack is reproduced with kind permission from the Children,
Youth and Environments Journal. ( Vol. 18 No. 1, 2008)

Anyone interested in childhood and how it is currently being undermined by increasing adult intervention and control will find this book a timely and provocative call to action. Tim Gill, one of Britain’s foremost experts on play, provides unique insights into the changing lives of young children and haunting predictions of the consequences. Focusing on society’s ubiquitous view of the world as increasingly dangerous, he cautions that overly protective adults may actually be denying
the experiential learning opportunities children need to grow and
develop into confident, resilient adults.

The book is compelling. I read it in one sitting and continue to reflect on and share its contents. Of particular note is Gill’s emphasis on redirecting societal energies from regulating existing environments to developing child-friendly communities where children are free to explore and learn. The primary take-home message is the urgency for parents, teachers, and child advocates to develop a more balanced understanding of what childhood is all about. It is not a plea for the total deregulation of childhood, but a call for a thoughtful examination of the types of experiences needed for children to grow and develop. He warns that the current “culture of fear” and “safety first” mentality may actually be producing a sanitized world in which children’s creativity and personal growth are stifled.

Gill’s focus is on children from the beginning of formal education to the onset of adolescence. This age has been referred to as “the years we ignore” often marginalized by theoreticians, clinicians, researchers, and parents who are enjoying the calm before the storm of adolescence and are less interested in listening to children than in having children listen to them. However, Gill reframes these years as pivotal periods in social and personal development. He emphasizes the need for children this age to encounter risk on their own terms and to negotiate risky activity among their peers. He uses a discussion of playgrounds to argue his case. He claims increasing adult restrictions and supervision are decreasing the amount and types of unsupervised activities available with which to accomplish the developmental tasks of childhood.

The book introduces the concept of shrinking horizons of childhood.

While many adults would agree that children today seem to be growing up too fast, Gill explains this impression is primarily due to the blurring of the boundaries between children and adults in terms of dress, activities and behaviours. However, while children appear to be more adult-like, their everyday experience of autonomy, their freedom to negotiate and to act on their own, is shrinking due to growing adult control and supervision. The importance of this is that children now enter adolescence with less confidence in managing and negotiating social relationships that involve teenage pressures to engage in risk activity.

The quandary for parents, teachers and child advocates is in determining how to strike a balance between accepting minor hurts and emotional setbacks on one hand, while identifying real hazards and preventing serious injury and psychological distress on the other. Increasingly, adult riskaverse attitudes prevail, fueled by a culture of fear, despite the fact that children are statistically safer than at any point in human history. The book contends that adult intervention should not be only about protecting children, but also about teaching children the skills they need to protect themselves. Gill proposes that children gain short and long-term benefits from experiencing activities with a degree of risk, whether or not they succeed at them. However, these benefits are not as easily measured as the more easily quantified consequences of risk.

The geographic context for Gill’s narrative is the United Kingdom, where risk aversion may be greater than in other European Union countries. At the same time, the level of risk aversion in the UK may be less than it is in the United States, fueled in part by the fundamental difference in the way the US legal system handles liability. The book acknowledges that children living in developing countries face qualitatively different risks than children in more affluent industrialized countries, but such a discussion was beyond the scope of the book. Nonetheless, Gill does disturb the reader into a new level of consciousness about childhood experiences, not matter what the context.

Using less than a hundred pages, Gill captures the essence of how the spread of risk-averse attitudes restricts children’s play, limits their freedomof movement, corrodes relationships with adults, and constrains exploration of their physical, social, and virtual worlds. It may also be increasing antisocial behaviour, bullying, fear of strangers, and online risks. He emphasizes that by “bubble wrapping” children, we deprive them the opportunity to develop the skills and resilience they need to protect themselves. He identifies a collective failure or shared blame and distributes it between parents and those in loco parentis – incuding schools, settings beyond the school, and the media. Although mot of the legislation and literature he cites are based on changes in the UK, similar changes are also taking place in other industrialized countries and parallel arguments could be made.

Gill shares examples of a few cities that are making efforts to move to child-friendly communities. He highlights that it is often difficult but possible to argue for a shift in policy from the protection of children to their empowerment. Although it makes intuitive sense and is supported by psychologists and child development experts, Gill reminds us that qualitative impressions are often open to methodological challenge: “this asymmetry in the measurability of risks and benefits… may require a radically different style of public debate.” He introduces the idea of seeking input from children and involving them in the debate, encouraging policy makers and researchers to explore participatory methods.

For readers interested in foregrounding children’s voices, Children at Play: An American History (Chudacoff 2007) provides a chronological history of play from the viewpoint of children themselves. It provides a wonderful parallel to Gill’s book. Both authors redirect us to ponder a little less about children’s safety and a little more about our role in changing the landscape in which children grow up today. They both highlight a continued need for society and parental wisdom in the care of their children, yet suggest moving the fulcrum back to the middle, balancing the need to protect children with the need to empower them. This call for a more balanced understanding of childhood is perhaps the most important and timely message for each of us.

Gill reminds us that

‘If our ultimate goal is to ensure that children grow up as engaged, self-confident, responsible, and resilient individuals who feel they have some control over their destinies and are alive to the consequences of their actions, childhood needs to include frequent, unregulated, self-directed contact with people and places beyond the immediate spheres of family and school, and the chance to learn from their mistakes.’

That pretty much says it all!

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