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Spare the risk, spoil the child?
Detail: MORAL MAZE

IT appears that public liability is eroding any activity which is fun but contains a slight risk. No wonder the vast majority of kids are bored. Years ago, there were parks with public play equipment that actually had interesting and fun things to do. These days you walk into a park only to be confronted by a sorry-looking plastic structure, about four feet (1.2 metres) high, that would bore a four-year-old in minutes. There must be serious consequences of having no fun. T.W., Gladesville

ARE we, as T.W. fears, in danger of crossing the line that divides a responsible, caring society from an overprotective one, prone to litigation at the drop of a hat (especially if it accidentally falls on your toe)? Are we so intent on creating safe environments that we are reducing children's opportunities to learn how to deal with risk?

It's tempting to grow nostalgic for the good old days when kids built their own billycarts and hurtled down car-free streets, capsizing on corners and skinning their knees or dislodging the odd tooth; a time when we wandered down to the local creek after school and returned home for dinner only when the light began to fail. What fun it was, back then, to ride in the back of a ute, unprotected, to ride bikes without helmets, drink water from the hose when we were thirsty, or climb trees that tested our agility and our head for heights.

There's another side to that story, of course: people who work in children's hospitals talk about lives ruined by a fall from a bike that might have been harmless if a helmet had been worn, or young bodies smashed by car accidents in which children were not wearing seatbelts, or children drowned in backyard pools.

Yes, we need to create safe environments, but the issue is whether we may be going too far in the direction of removing "acceptable" risk. T.W. wonders how children will learn to deal with risks if we don't let them take some. That's part of a more general concern: are we discouraging people from taking responsibility for their own actions by becoming the kind of society where people look around for someone else to blame or sue whenever there's an accident?

Local councils and schools have become spooked by the prospect of being held responsible for injuries suffered by careless or disobedient kids. I know of one parent preparing to sue a school for negligence because her son was injured while clambering on a desk before school, when the rules said he should have been in the playground. What will that boy learn about personal responsibility if his parents go ahead with the case?

Every community has a collective responsibility for the wellbeing of its members. But that doesn't absolve us from individual responsibility to protect ourselves and our children. Many parents, reflecting on their childhoods, suspect a bit of risk-taking was better for their physical and emotional development than the adrenaline rush today's kids receive from blasting their enemies to smithereens on a video screen while seated safely indoors.

Yet the current surge of overprotective zeal may spring partly from busy parents' guilt about their inability to supervise their children's play. If you can't be around to do the job yourself, perhaps it's natural to set even higher standards for the school, the child-care centre or the council than you'd set for yourself.

If we continue down the path of less personal responsibility, more litigation and a more sanitised, over-regulated environment, won't we become a less generous, less tolerant, more timid society? Will that make us more or less safe?

HUGH MACKAY
22 May 2005, Sun Herald
2005 Copyright John Fairfax Holdings Limited.
Source: The Sun Herald: www.smh.com.au
Date: May 22 2005