Monday, June 16, 2008

Column, July 31, 2007

THERE are many rites of passage a child must go through.
First day at school, learning to ride a bike, death of a pet, and the rediscovery of gravity.
Newton got there first of course with his apple, but each and every child at one time or another falls far enough to have time to realise they are actually accelerating toward the ground.
For me it was when I was playing up a tree I just had time to register indignant surprise when a branch came away in my hand, then I was falling backwards toward the ground and I distinctly remember realising that I was going faster and faster and faster. I knew how Newton’s apple must have felt.
The next moment every last molecule of breath was knocked from my body and I wondered whether I was going to die.
Today, if we believe some of the tales of the compensation culture that has gripped the nation, I could have consulted m’learned friends to sue the owner of the tree for having defective branches as well as the owner of the land for keeping it in such a hard, unyielding and dangerously uncomfortable state.
Shakespeare had it right in Henry VI when he wrote: “First, we kill all the lawyers.” Lawyers will argue that what Shakespeare meant was that lawyers were the defenders of freedom and had to be eradicated before any revolt could succeed. Typical of lawyers, they’ll even twist the words of the Bard.
Now we hear of cotton-wool kids, brought up cocooned from all risk. Thinking about it though, some strategically-placed cotton wool might have saved me a winding that day.
Conkers seem to feature highly in the league-table of risk to today’s children. If council’s aren’t chopping down centuries-old conker trees to stop children climbing them, they’re banning the playing of conkers in the schoolyard because as we all know a piece of flying conker shell has all the lethal properties of depleted uranium.
Forget Challenger tanks and Typhoon fighters, what our brave lads need against the Taliban is a good stock of horse chestnuts, they would all be home by Christmas.
But now the conker has had to make way for another threat to our children’s health – the donkey derby.
Llandudno donkey derby to be exact. A hotly-contested fixture on the racing calendar, or so you might think given that insurers have refused to cover it and the lawyers have said that if there’s an accident a young jockey might sue.
Children from across the UK had competed for years and it has to be said the high Court had as yet been untroubled by litigation stemming from it, but nevertheless the organisers were told it was a risk and so this year’s derby took place with inflatable sheep as riders, not the understandably disappointed children.
It was hardly as if they had been facing anything like Bechers Brook on the course, it was a 30-second race at little more than walking pace and they all wore helmets.
Parents were even willing to sign a waiver, but according to the lawyer the child might still sue at the age of 18 for injuries sustained years before.
I’d just like to know how the insurers are calculating this risk. How many donkey derbies are there up and down the country and how many result in death and mutilation for the youngsters taking part? I’m willing to bet there are none.
Now, how many young children are killed or injured by cars every single day? Dozens, and yet of the two risk groups, the insurers decide it’s the killer donkeys of Bodafon Fields that are uninsurable, not the nutters in hit’n’run hot hatchbacks.
It’s stories like this that perpetuate the feeling that our children are constantly at risk. Life becomes like an episode of Casualty when you’re left wondering which carelessly placed iron, which discarded cigarette, which gale-blown tree or runaway bus is going to see off your nearest and dearest.
Reports at the weekend said that fewer children than ever play outside. Their parents generation would play in the street, but the risk from cars and irrational fears of predatory paedophiles mean children are locked away with TV and computers as a diversion instead of something riskier and healthier like a game of football in the park.
Parents who think they are protecting their children by doing this are sadly misguided, with obesity levels in children reaching record levels, is it any wonder they are so fat, when they never go outside?
The protective parent is basically laying the foundations for a heart attack in their child’s 40s by keeping them indoors.
By protecting them from non-existent risks parents also prevent their children from developing a real sense of what is and isn’t dangerous, so that when they finally emerge from their parents’ cocoon, they are unable to make sensible decisions about the risks that are around them.
And the risks they face as a teenager are real – alcohol, drugs, gangs, teenage pregnancy – but they have been so sheltered up until then they aren’t able to assess those risks.
Is it any wonder they end up happy-slapping each other and posting the results on YouTube? By the time they get t 13 their minds must be so addled by boredom only full-blooded fighting can remotely amuse them.
Our attitude to young people is very odd. First we want to protect them from all risk as young children, then when they grow into surly teenagers we want to place ASBOs on them and issue dispersal orders so they can’t hang around with each other.
They might be forgiven for thinking we are all mad, and they would probably be right.

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