Wednesday, 5 June 2013

A risky business

A few years ago I was at Bradgate Park in Leicestershire with my eldest son, then around five years old. He was climbing on the rocks, and I was simultaneously filming him and encouraging him to continue over the top. These are big rocks (amongst the oldest in the world apparently!), and I was caught in the moment, filled with ‘Dad pride’ at his climbing ability. It was only when I (and more to the point his mother) watched the footage back later that I thought ‘blimey, if he’d slipped then we’d have been in trouble!’

I could point to lots of similar incidents in history and popular culture: from William Tell shooting an apple off his son’s head (not that he had much choice), through naturalist Steve Irwin 'Croc man puts his son at risk', via Michael Jackson dangling his son off a balcony, to skateboarder Tony Hawkes not putting a helmet on his daughter. 

Of course, risk is all relative, and there's something to be said for Hawkes' response: 'For those that say I endanger my child: it's more likely that you will fall while walking on the sidewalk than I will while skating with my daughter.' Unfortunately I couldn't offer the same defence with the climbing shenanigans.

But all these incidents got me thinking about the scientific research on the topic. And there is some. For example, this study interviewed 32 dads of young children and found that:

Fathers believed a central aspect of their role involved actively exploring the world with their children through physical and play-based activities. Fathers made decisions about the appropriateness of activities, striking a balance between protecting their child and exposing them to risk and new experiences. Most fathers placed high value on providing their children with risk-taking opportunities and discussed many positive aspects of risk and experiencing minor injuries. The potential for serious injury was considered in weighing decisions regarding risk engagement. 

… In other words, Dads believe exposing their children to risk is absolutely key to their role. This article agrees: 

In one experiment… toys were placed at the top of a flight of stairs. The researchers noticed that the dads tended to follow their children at a greater distance than the moms and this seemed to encourage more exploration.
“We found that fathers are more inclined than mothers to activate exploratory behavior by being less protective,” says the study’s lead author, Daniel Paquette, a professor at the university.
“[Dads] respond to the child’s need to be encouraged, to overcome limits, and to learn to take risks in contexts in which they are confident of being protected from potential dangers.” 

Interestingly it appears this influence continues beyond childhood, and can actually guide children away from risky behaviours:

Other recent studies have shown that dads have a more powerful influence than moms when it comes to convincing kids to steer clear of cigarettes and sex. 

There's also some research which suggests gender differences in reactions to risk taking:

Parent reactions to risk taking by sons focused on discipline but reactions to the same behaviors by daughters focused on safety. Mothers, in particular, reacted to sons with anger and daughters with disappointment and surprise. Parents attributed risk taking to personality for sons but situational factors for daughters, and judged daughters could be taught to comply with safety rules more than sons.   

I wonder if there are any studies on parental response to injury resulting from risk taking? It's not necessarily risk taking, but in the context of football I see Dads every week (including me) grabbing their injured, crying boys under the armpits and hoisting them up with a 'come on mate, run it off, you'll be fine'. I would say that 99% of the time we're right, and that we're deliberately trying to teach that rolling round on the floor is very rarely necessary or helpful. (I'm not sure my sister would agree: when she was about two and I was around 15, she had a fall and I employed the 'it'll be fine' waggling technique on her wrist, which turned out to be broken).

I'd love to hear about any other research on this topic, and views from any Dads (or Mums) out there.

1 comment:

  1. This reminds me of the book "50 dangerous things you should let your children do". A good point was made by Gever Tulley that the risks we are most concerned about regarding our kids are very unlikely and we actually don't teach our kids sensible risk taking - which also involves encouraging a lot of cognitive and physical development.

    He argues that places like structured play parks actually "always work", in that kids can always climb to the top, slide down, etc. Whereas climbing tress etc, don't always work (any dad will know that you can rarely get to the top!). Encouraging kids to climb trees etc is much more likely to encourage kids to problem solve, understand concepts such as the relationship between weight and branch width, and to understand that it is the trying that is fun, not just the reaching the top. These are much more psychologically health skills.

    Go let your kids lick batteries and climb trees - or watch the talk on TED by Gever Tulley.