This last weekend we went away to stay in some cottages on a farm near Greyton in the Western Cape. The place was idyllic beyond what we could have imagined. The accommodation was more than fine and the views, well, they just stopped your heart. This was the view from the stoep:
One afternoon, we ambled down to the river and the children to proceeded to disrobe, wade in the river and make constructions from rocks and slimy river mud. The water was about knee deep on a 5 year old at its deepest in this part of the river and the parents watched as the children (youngest aged 2) roamed freely in the water.
Out of the blue, a boy aged perhaps seven or eight waddled down to the river bank and and nervously made his way to the middle point of the river where he simply stood for quite some time. I say waddled, not because this child was in anyway overweight, but because he was encased in a life-vest for someone 3 times his size and girth. The sight of this modern day Michelin man stepping gingerly past them made even the 5 2-5 year olds stop and stare. The vest was absolutely luminous in colour and stood out against the river and the forest on the other bank, well, like a luminous orange vest against a river. If that boy got in trouble in mid-calf deep, calm water, there wasn't anyone who wasn't noticing.
The sight of this child made even the parents stop yakking and I said, (only half-joking): "I bet that's an English child!"
What would make me say something so mean about a poor little boy with in a buoyancy aid? Am I an irresponsible mother?
No, I am just used to "Health and Safety Gone Mad"- I do believe I am borrowing that phrase from the delightful Daily Mail. The attempt to eliminate all risk from life, however small, so that no one ever, ever get hurts- or even better, learns to take care.
What do I mean? Let me me elaborate: whilst I believe that public places should be safe and playgrounds, for instance, should be obliged to ensure that they area is safe i.e., no rusty nails sticking out, no jagged bits of metal- I don't believe that they have to eliminate all risk to anyone by creating an experience so very bland that it is no challenge and therefore not much fun to any child over 1 year.
In England, the councils so fear being sued by a parent whose child falls of a slide that was too high that they build the slides so low that no one can possibly fall off them. Just step off it. Where's the fun in that?
Another example: apparently a law has been passed in England that you cannot order your burger rare in some establishments, to avoid health risks to yourself. So even if you like a bit of red in your meat, the government has decided to save you from yourself (just in case the meat is off) and you may now only have it well done. Another example of removing responsibility from the hands of the individual and allowing the government to legislate for the lowest common denominator. I think it's outrageous. Demanding standards of hygiene in eating establishments, yes. But this- come on!!
Anyway, to go back to my story, just as I remarked that the boy must be English, his mother- anxious and tense- appeared nearby. "Be Careful" she called...in a crisp, British accent. We looked at each other and tried not to laugh.
The poor sweet boy stood, enveloped in the luminous hideousness, mid-calf deep in the water, staring at his mother, wringing her hands in angst. Meanwhile, our 4 year old watched him with increasing curiosity. He wobbled a little, his orangeness swaying bizarrely above the water lapping over the rocks. "BE CAREFUL!", yelled his mother again, casting off her flip flops and dashing through the water to steady him. Turns out, he'd got his feet stuck between the rocks. She led him out of the water by the hand, totally emasculated, as 5 girls (most of them butt naked) looked on. Truth be told, the vest probably unbalanced him- it looked like he'd gone in in a sumo suit.
The boy obviously wanted to go in the water, why else would he wade in by himself? Was there a risk of something happening to him? I guess he could have fallen over and bruised his bottom. Risk of the vest coming in use? Absolutely minimal! In fact, a huge swell as a result of a month's worth of rain probably wouldn't even have made the vest useful.
I'm not criticising the mother or the child, I am criticising a culture of Health and Safety that gets under your skin, makes you doubt your judgement as a parent, undercut your child's sense of adventure and remove from your child any ability to independently judge risk. Wrapping them up literally in cotton wool all the time is not a good plan.
When we first arrived in South Africa, my daughter (3.5 at the time) visited her school before she started. The kids came running up to her and she happily scarpered off with them. As I turned to look where she was, my heart stopped. She was on a jungle gym so tall that if I had lifted up my arms, my fingers would have tickled her toes. I had no idea where she had found the courage to climb so high and I feared how she'd get down. The thought of her going that school every day and climbing so high with a seething mass of children was almost enough for me to pull her out of the school. Seriously.
I still have trouble watching my daughters on jungle gyms, they're terribly cavalier 6ft above the ground and there have been a couple of accidents but, generally, provided they go on age appropriate equipment, they're fine. Interestingly, my younger girl who has spent half her life here is much more of a risk-taker than her sister was at the same age. Possibly character, possibly an environment that allows her to explore and a mother that has thrown off the Health and Safety culture a bit.
That poor boy, I can't help wondering what the rest of his holiday is like. I have no doubt he will be eating all his food well done and he won't forgot the bemusement and confusion on the faces of 5 naked 2-5 year olds in a hurry.