Over the past 20 years, the media’s obsession with sensationalism, coupled with society’s deep-set attachment to fear, has skewed our perception of safety. It has changed the way we interact with our world and it has removed us further from our most fundamental instincts. Slowly, over time, we have divorced ourselves from our natural urges: to explore, experience and achieve. Instead, we are encouraged to create sterile homes, protect our children from all physical and psychological pain and avoid unpleasantness at all costs.
But is this need for constant protection actually necessary and, more importantly, is it good for your ultimate wellbeing?
The Chicken Little complex
The world is a scary place and we are all in grave danger. At least, that’s what the evening news would have you believe. Sadly, many people have adopted this untruth as their daily mantra and live life in an exaggerated state of anxiety. It seems that as the world has become safer, healthier and more tolerable, we as a society have fabricated more reasons to be frightened.
The fact is that you live in a society that is more pleasant than it has ever been. Infectious diseases have almost been eradicated from Australia, and the average life expectancy has climbed to just under 82 years of age. You are safer on the roads now than you were in the 1990s, with fewer vehicle fatalities, and the crime rate (including homicides and abductions) has remained steady, or in some cases has dropped, in the past two decades. Even local terrorism — a favourite topic of the modern doomsayers — was more prevalent in the 1980s and 1990s than it has been in recent years.
Poverty is at a historical low, government is stable and air quality is substantially better than in other developed countries. In many respects, Australia is the lucky country and is only getting luckier!
However, in contrast to this increasingly pleasant existence, the restriction, regulation and sterilisation of your life has become more invasive and more intensive. It’s your children, in particular, who seem to be monitored, safeguarded and preserved more than any generation before them. And the effects of such overbearing protection are beginning to emerge.
School classrooms and playgrounds have become regulated with military rigour to supress risky or aggressive behaviour, but a British study indicates that the real cause of bullying may have roots in the home, with bully victims more likely than not to have overprotective parents.
Many competitive sports have done away with scorecards for fear of causing angst in a losing child; however, experts maintain that this practice is undermining the child’s ability to develop a sense of agency — the sense that they have the power to affect a circumstance through effort.
Childhood obesity continues to soar as statistics show that 63 per cent of students are personally driven to and from the school gate, in stark contrast to 16 per cent in the 1970s.
In the home, the number of antibacterial products ideal for hospital-grade sterilisation has skyrocketed from a few dozen products in the mid-1990s to more than 700 today. This trend has health authorities concerned, with many government agencies pleading for the return to standard soaps and detergents in residential circumstances. It seems that our excessive cleaning habits are contributing to the rise of more dangerous bacteria and an increase in childhood allergies.
In effect, the emphasis on protection is creating just as many problems as it is alleviating, and society is no less challenging than it was 20 years ago. In fact, today’s society may be causing more harm than we realise due to one vital factor: in the quest for a pain-free, risk-free and germ-free existence, we seem to have taken all the fun and adventure out of life.
Teach the children well
Bruce McLachlan is the principal of Swanson School, a government primary school situated in the western suburbs of Auckland, New Zealand. “Over the years, we have moved away from the idea of letting children learn how to mitigate risk. Perhaps we were never aware of it at the time but, when we let children play freely, they were learning risk management,” McLachlan remarks.
Swanson School, under McLachlan’s guidance, has been undergoing a radical change in playground etiquette since 2012. As part of a university study on childhood obesity and bullying, McLachlan was tasked with making a change to the school playground so that any effects — positive or negative — could be observed. After serious consideration and research, McLachlan decided to make one simple adjustment at his school. “We stopped saying no,” he explains.
The change was not announced in any way. Rather, on the instruction of McLachlan, teachers simply began to turn a blind eye to any playground behaviour as long as it met two important criteria: the child was not hurting someone else, and the child was not damaging someone else’s property.
What transpired was a gradual transition from a regulated, restricted playground into an unhindered display of childhood exuberance and creativity. Today, children are free to ride scooters and bikes, climb trees, roll in tractor tyres and construct various dwellings and contraptions using the “spare parts pit”: a mish-mash of timber, fire hoses and other miscellaneous materials. “When you look at our playground it can look chaotic and, at times, messy,” McLachlan admits.
However, according to McLachlan, the results of this free play have been overwhelmingly positive, in terms of both the wellbeing and the maturity of the students.
We are encouraged to create sterile homes, protect our children from all physical and psychological pain and avoid unpleasantness at all costs.
“We actually have fewer reported injuries,” he states. “One of the reasons we think this has happened is because the children don’t want to interrupt their play. Children are still getting hurt, but they are learning how to manage that hurt themselves. They are learning that a little bit of hurt is actually OK and that they can get up and get on with things without the need for constant adult intervention and reassurance.”
In addition, the children have become more co-operative and team-focused, bullying has all but disappeared and the students have developed a stronger sense of compassion. “Our playground is not segregated, so the young kids are playing among the bigger, boisterous ones. But what we have found is that, if a younger student gets hurt, the older children will step in to help them,” McLachlan explains.
In the classroom, the effects of this free play are also evident. Children have become more settled, more co-operative, more creative and better problem-solvers. “Not only are they learning about risk when doing free play, they are learning how to do things differently. You often overhear the children working together as they are building and creating, and coming up with new ideas,” McLachlan says.
“Children are not setting out to hurt themselves,” he adds. “They are actually setting out to achieve something. And, in the process of achieving something, they are learning how to manage their risk and how to do things they couldn’t do before.”
In pursuit of fantasy
US human behaviour specialist Dr John Demartini is not surprised by the results from the Swanson School initiative. “Many people would equate freedom with children running around like wild animals,” he explains. “What we are talking about is children who are free to do what inspires them.”
Demartini has spent over 40 years researching and teaching about philosophy and the principles of human behaviour. He believes that the recent obsession with protection and sanitation is based on part fantasy. “People perceive more harm than is actually realistic. Many people these days are addicted to fantasy,” he says.
According to Demartini, this fantasy has its roots in the Hedonistic and Utilitarian movements of the 17th and 18th centuries — ideals that are based on the principles of continuous happiness, safety and security. However, Demartini maintains that the quest for a utopian society can actually undermine human development.
in the quest for a pain-free, risk-free and germ-free existence, we seem to have taken all the fun and adventure out of life.
“We are wise to learn to embrace both sides of life: support and challenge,” he advises. “People have to have challenge to facilitate the birth of innovation, creation and opportunity. Over-protection creates juvenile dependence; too much challenge creates precocious independence. But a lovely balance of both support and challenge gives rise to maximum growth and development.”
This inherent need for challenge includes the experience of both physical and emotional pain, Demartini says. “We wouldn’t have pain endings at the end of our fingers if pain wasn’t necessary. Pain is our feedback mechanism. By nature, you have a need for pain, discomfort and things that challenge you. It makes up half of learning.”
For Demartini, the answer to a fulfilled life does not lie in eliminating all pain and discomfort. In fact, he believes that wherever we attempt to suppress challenge we will create equal challenge in another area of our lives — a principle that’s already playing out in society, as mentioned above. Instead, Demartini suggests you can teach yourself, and your children, how to embrace challenge; how to love and embrace painful experiences and to appreciate the support and growth they facilitate.
“With children, it’s about self-governance; if they don’t have self-governance, then they need outer governance,” he advises. “Self-governance only comes from acknowledging both sides of life: pleasure and pain, challenge and support.”
As for today’s children, Demartini suggests that instead of constant supervision and radical protection they should be encouraged to acknowledge pain and discomfort and be given opportunities to explore challenging situations. “It is wise to teach children to go after challenges that inspire them. If they don’t seek out or create challenges that they are inspired by, they will keep running into and experiencing other challenges in their lives that are uninspiring,” he says.
An adventure or nothing
Over a hundred thousand years ago, a small band of humans began a perilous migration out of Africa. In the millennia that followed, this group of nomadic adventurers overcame harsh landscapes, stealthy predators and constantly changing climates to become one of the most prolific species on Earth.
It is easy to imagine that, at times, early humans were confronted with almost insurmountable challenges. However, these early societies continued to thrive, not by controlling their surroundings and eliminating risk, but by working with and understanding their environments and adapting their behaviour through trial and error. Drawing on their increasing intelligence and their natural instincts, early humans learned how to accept risk and turn it to their greatest advantage.
Today, with our comfortable homes and expanding technology, it’s easy to see ourselves as somehow separate from, and above, the natural instincts of other creatures. However, the truth is that inside us we are still driven by the same fundamental impulses as our ancestors. At your core, you are no different from the bold, early humans who first ventured out of East Africa.
Human society has become what it is today — prolific, intelligent and creative — because of the innate human need to explore, innovate, challenge, understand and, ultimately, evolve. You are not designed to be safe or sedentary. You are designed to overcome; to learn, experience, attempt, fail, strive and achieve. As Helen Keller once said, “Life is an adventure, or nothing.”
When a society and its parents become invasively protective, the implications for wellbeing, although not always instantly apparent, are profound. Confidence, drive, desire and purpose are fundamental ingredients in living a fulfilled life. However, it’s impossible to obtain any of these elements without also confronting risk, challenge or danger … or, perhaps more importantly, being able to accurately and intuitively evaluate risk and danger when it presents itself.
Therefore, it is perhaps time to review your relationship with fear, pain and challenge. It is time to regain a society where children are not only loved and safeguarded but also encouraged to explore their limitations, respect their own personal and physical boundaries and take calculated risks. It is time to once again enjoy life as it is meant to be lived: with a hunger for experience and a thirst for adventure.