Today's kids can be over-protected

23:40, Feb 18 2013
Lake Te Anau
TAKING THE PLUNGE: Should children be allowed to enjoy summer fun without the hyper-vigilance of over-protective parents?

Penzance Bay, Pelorus Sound. A late Saturday morning at the end of January. The sun is hot, the air calm, except for a hint of the afternoon sea breeze, wrinkling the glassy green water with the tiniest of ripples.

The tide is in, leaving a bare half-metre of gravelled beach and a decent swim out to the pontoon moored offshore. The clear, soft water first chills, then invigorates. There cannot be a more perfect place to enjoy a pre-lunch swim.

Back onshore, a father is getting his preschooler ready for a swim. She wears a pink swimsuit which leaves only her lower legs and arms uncovered, a tiny lifejacket, rubber swim shoes, and a voluminous cotton sunhat.

Dad is slathering any uncovered skin in thick sunscreen. She's whingeing and wriggling. He puts her in a tiny blow-up boat close to the shore.

She whinges a bit louder and lifts her arms up and away from the water. He lifts her out, and she stands uncomfortably on the edge of the water, waiting for her father to make the next move.

What are we to make of this picture? On one hand, we see a caring, careful father, devoted to the health and safety of his daughter. On the other, we see something so inimical to the idea of a joyous childhood that it takes your breath away.


Why couldn't that little girl enjoy the water unfettered? A pair of knickers, a hat, a slick of sunscreen and an eye on the clock to avoid too much midday sun was all that was needed.

Supervise the tot as closely as required for age and stage, but let her enjoy and explore the water however she pleases. Trussed up in all the accoutrements required by the sun and water safety tsars, she'll never be in any danger of enjoying the sun and water on her skin and revelling in the physical freedom and oneness with nature that is the right of every child.

Parents of young children seem unnecessarily nervous nowadays, and the cost of their hyper-vigilance will be paid by their children.

I first thought about this issue back in the 1990s, during a trip to Nelson College's Mataki Lodge with a year 10 class. On a day tramp up to the Mole Tops by way of the rock-strewn Mole Stream, I wondered why some boys were making such heavy weather of it.

One or two had so little sense of balance that they were forced to move up the stream almost on all fours. I realised that they were learning to negotiate boulders and rocks for the first time in their lives.

It was surprising to realise that a local child could reach adolescence without having had that kind of experience, considering that Nelsonians have relatively easy access to the coast, mountains, streams and rivers.

Over-cautious parents will be only one of the reasons why teenage boys can't comfortably climb up a rocky stream bed. Time-poor working parents, low incomes and the lure of entertainment technology and social media will also play their part.

But consider how often messages magnifying the dangers of almost everything rain down on us. Television reality show Piha Rescue (it's surprising anyone enters the water at Piha at all since this hysterically toned production began), harmful germs on everything, medicines (should I keep taking Voltaren?), our streets after dark, our roads at all times - no wonder we're nervous, and parents, as protectors, are the most nervous of all.

Of course, times change. And so they should. Even a cursory look at the statistics on accidental child deaths will show that many fewer children die now than did 40 years ago.

Two French Pass district children of my generation died by drowning, and I remember my parents being very careful where our safety near water was concerned.

We could not swim without adult supervision. We were not allowed to take the dinghy out alone until we could swim 100 yards without putting our feet down, but we didn't own lifejackets, and, as children, we mocked the "townies" who wore them.

That attitude is cringe-worthy now, but back then it was part of a range of attitudes held, I suspect, by most rural children and created by our way of life.

We could also gut fish, milk cows, regard dead and dying animals with practical and dispassionate eyes, wade through swamps, climb tall pines, and manage ourselves up and down the steep hills and around the rocky coast with agility and maturity of judgment beyond our years.

With a greater awareness of safety, child accident numbers have fallen. There's no doubt about that.

But I wonder whether the results of our hyper-vigilant, safety-conscious world will show up in another group of negative statistics. I'm thinking of the health issues that result from vitamin D deficiency and obesity, as well as the rise in anxiety and depression.

We wouldn't want to go back to older, less safety-conscious ways, but surely a middle ground can be found between that cautious father at Penzance Bay and believing it's acceptable to mock people wearing lifejackets.

If we're creating a world where children can't splash about in the sea, climb trees, scramble up a rocky creek bed or walk to school by themselves, we're heading in the wrong direction.

It's ironic to think that some of the ways we try to protect children could lead to more danger in the long term. No caring parent would want that.