How society manages risk for children has become a subject of increasing debate. It can be argued that we have moved from letting children grow up with a minimum of adult interference to a “zero risk” culture that is having a detrimental impact on their development.
Every year, Barnardo’s Scotland works with more than 10,000 of the most disadvantaged children and young people up to the age of about 25. Statistically, it is likely that at least one child or young person we work with will die over the next year. This might be from an undiagnosed medical condition, a drugs overdose or even by committing suicide. For Barnardo’s Scotland, risk is a very real and everyday concern. We take our responsibility to safeguard and protect children very seriously. But we cannot, and should not, seek to eliminate all risk.
As a society we are quick to highlight and sensationalise even the slightest possibility of blame in any accident involving children and young people. But, paradoxically, we also love “child protection gone mad” stories, such as conkers being banned from school playgrounds.
And this can impact on organisations’ response to risk. Rare and tragic events can sometimes result in disproportionate and hasty responses, leading to systems and procedures that are overly protective and unnecessary. Being seen to act can be more about the organisation’s own needs rather than the risks that children and young people actually face. The zero-risk approach has come about in part to protect organisations, schools and their employees so that reputation isn’t damaged and legal action isn’t taken.
This more cautious approach has been echoed in statistics highlighting the reduction in school trips and the end of activities that are deemed “too risky”. There is also often a lack of understanding of the rules and guidelines around risk management and assessment with many “myths” clouding the views of those who work with children, leading them to being even more risk-averse than need be.
Parents and families are also reluctant to put their children “at risk”, with many not allowing them to play out of their sight, walk to school on their own or go to the shops. This isn’t surprising, and largely reflects the wider social and cultural changes that have taken place and the perception that somehow the streets are not as safe as they used to be with more “stranger danger”.
Peer pressure among parents is also a really important factor. Many parents would prefer their children to play more freely, like they did, but worry what would be said if the worst happened. A child falling out of a tree and breaking their arm might once have been seen as a youthful mistake, now it might be put down to poor parenting.
Over the past few years, we have seen a growing challenge to the zero-risk approach and a mood to redress the current imbalance has emerged. Increasing numbers of academics, politicians and children’s charities have come forward to say that we are not getting it right and that by being so risk-averse in our approach to children we are actually risking their development and affecting how they understand risk when they become young adults.
The Scottish Government’s newly launched play strategy states that children “must be able to play freely and safely while learning to manage risks and make choices about where, how and when they play according to their age, ability and preference.” Crucially, the strategy calls for “parents, carers, professionals and volunteers to adopt a risk-benefit approach to play” and recognises the long-term benefits of play and exposure to risk. This is a welcome step forward and one that we hope will help shape a new culture in Scotland.
If, as the Scottish Government is promising in its new Children and Young People Bill, we are going to try to put children at the centre and build support and services around them and their needs, then we should move away from a zero-risk approach.
We need to learn to listen, trust and involve young people in all decision-making that surrounds them. Participation in this way will help them develop understanding regarding risk and set them on the path to making those decisions for themselves in years to come.
There will always be risk. There will always be accidents, but we should work to manage this and not to eliminate it. Otherwise we risk not only the chance for children to learn and to develop, but the chance to benefit from the type of childhood our generation enjoyed.
• Martin Crewe Director, Barnardo’s Scotland www.barnardos.org.uk/scotland