To The Point - How can we let go?

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The recent terrible events in Machynlleth force those of us who call for a more balanced approach to risk in childhood to take stock.


How can we reconcile our views with the searing reality of such an apparently senseless act?

Of course, we need to remind ourselves that such incidents are incredibly rare. Yet to quote statistics feels inadequate, if well-intentioned. But it also seems wrong to simply allow our emotional responses to overwhelm us, and leave no room for reason.

If we are to come to terms with raw tragedy, we need to understand just why we can feel so helpless in the face of it. We need to start with the question that so often leaves us floundering: 'how would you feel if it were your child'?

We need to look that question in the eye: to feel both its force and its flaws. That question is understandable as a plea for sympathy. But as a way of deciding what is best for children, it is deeply unhelpful.

Gaining perspective

The question asks us to adopt the point of view of those who have suffered devastating loss. Such a plea cannot help but lead to excessively risk averse responses to tragedy. It is quite different from an appeal for sympathy. It is a request that we adopt the inevitably revised value system of the victim. This is a request that, however understandable, needs to be resisted in circumstances like these. The truth is, if we were always required to see the world through the eyes of the most unlucky, then we would always choose zero risk.

I am not saying that we should ignore our feelings. But gaining a perspective on tragedy means moving on from the emotions that arise in its aftermath. It means creating some distance from the circumstances of those who are still overwhelmed by loss. It means facing up to this fact: we live in a world that, while arguably safer for children than at any time in history, is also a place where sometimes monstrous things happen.

All parents want the best for their children. And all parents know that their children will some day need to make their own way in life. They will choose their own paths, make their own decisions, and rely on their own ability to cope with the ups and downs that come their way. It is not always easy to let go. But it has to happen.

The pioneering childcare expert, Mia Kelmer Pringle, makes the point well in her classic 1974 book The Needs of Children. In it, she asks, 'How can responsibility be given to the immature and to the irresponsible'? Her answer: 'there is no way out of the dilemma that unless it is granted, the child cannot learn how to exercise it'.


Far from being a negligent or irresponsible act, giving children a taste of freedom is a crucial part of every parent's role. Many parents already recognise this fact. Indeed a growing number of them are becoming ever more vocal about the importance of untying the apron strings.

Look at London parents Oliver and Gillian Schonrock, who two years ago fought the authorities for the right to let their fiveand eight-year-old children cycle to school. Look at Lenore Skenazy, the New York mum who found herself the centre of a media storm after letting her nine-year-old son travel on the subway on his own - and is now the vocal leader of the American 'free range parenting' movement.

Look at 'Playing Out', the campaign to open up residential streets for play, launched by two Bristol mothers, that is spreading across the country. All these people, and many more, reject the view that being a good parent means being a controlling parent.

We need to find a way to move on from the singular horror of a family whose lives have been torn apart. Inevitably, it may take some longer than others to take this step. But once we have done so, we will be able to see the zero risk mindset for what it is: a world-view that takes us 180 degrees away from the kind of childhood that best nurtures children.

Tim Gill is the author of No Fear: Growing up in a risk averse society. He manages a website called Rethinking Childhood which focuses on the changing nature of childhood

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