So childhood should be more hazardous? Stuff and nonsense
We love the world of The Dangerous Book for Boys, but few of us actually want our children falling out of trees
Considering how many parents have declared that seven is quite old enough to travel alone, it is amazing how few children of this age one sees of a morning queuing at bus stops, flashing past on tiny cycles or crossing arterial roads hand in hand, just as we did in the 60s on the way to the blacking factory.
If politicians talk disingenuous rubbish about risk, then so equally do many parents
Hulton Archive | The way we were: a boy takes aim, 1958.
By Catherine Bennett
Either they are so minute as to be hard to spot or, like the game of conkers and the company of William Brown, independent travel is rather less appealing in practice than when a point about the malignity of elf’n’safety officialdom needs to be made. Though, as the education secretary Michael Gove proved last week, a widespread insincerity about the joys of traditional childhood does not diminish its political value as a jobsworth-insulting technique.
While parents were denouncing the council that bossily pronounced Isabelle McCullough too young to cross a main road alone (although her school bus driver was also of this opinion), Michael Gove was widely taken at his word when he said: “We need to change our bubblewrap culture; we need a Dangerous Book for Boys culture.”
I can only think the Gove family had more success than mine with page 252, Hunting and Cooking a Rabbit, in which the authors assure the timid: “There is a great satisfaction in pulling off a difficult shot over a distance.”
As for schools, even teachers with access to a gun and a 30-yard range may find it difficult to provide boys with the recommended knives for skinning and disembowelling the dead animal – a heavybladed cleaver or, failing that, a penknife, preferably with a serrated edge. And how many teenage boys would wish to risk their own? “A standard kitchen knife,” warn the authors, Hal and Conn Iggulden, “is likely to be damaged if used as a chopper.”
Mr Gove in his campaign against our risk-averse society. The greatest risk, where failure to make a paper aeroplane or boat is concerned, is the crushing disappointment of the parent who realises that her affection for The Dangerous Book for Boys is generated in the same part of the brain that responds to faux-vintage cupcakes and will not be satisfied until it owns a Cath Kidston sewing box shaped like a rustic cottage.
No, what appeals to an educationalist such as Gove or Toby Young or, going back a bit, Thomas Arnold, are potentially bloody activities that will, as proven throughout the empire, cultivate the manly attributes.
Girls, with their innate sissiness, appear to be less at risk from bubblewrap. It is not yet clear if he will get permission for his year seven bomb disposal course, but the state academy to be opened by Toby Young still promises to produce specimens in the fine, Baden-Powell mould, given its founder’s fear, when he endorsed Gove’s approach, that schools are in danger of producing “cautious little wet noodles who daren’t say boo to a goose”. It cannot be long, for example, before youthful knife crime and muggings are conducted in nervous silence.
“We need to dismantle the whole edifice of mollycoddling rules and regulations,” says Young, “so our children are free to play proper, oldfashioned games even if they involve risk of injury.” Without this kind of physical threat, Digby Jones, the businessman and favourite of the sportsman turned noodle Gordon Brown, is another who fears for the nation’s future. Before he quit government to devote himself to baking ever-harder conkers, Lord Jones lamented “cotton-wool kids” whose unfamiliarity with discomfort is “potentially fatal to our economics and social wellbeing”. Is he right? One turns, instinctively to Maggie Atkinson, the Commissioner for Children, who is charged with representing their views.
Would children like life to be more dangerous? Tellingly, perhaps, Ms Atkinson would not risk talking.
boys at least. (For girls, although Mr Gove has yet to identify an inspirational text, The Great Big Glorious Book for Girls, coincidentally co-authored by Mrs Gove [Sarah Vine,], advocates a different, yet equally vintage routine featuring sewing, daisy chains and Chinese burns).
Even if there is little evidence around to suggest strong parental interest in the benefits of personal injury, research indicates that they would like the state to supply some risk, as a corrective to its excessive vigilance. A survey commissioned by the British Toy and Hobby Association has just found that three-quarters out of the 2,000 parents it asked think that schools are too concerned with safety at playtime. Explaining the findings, a psychologist said: “Parents go nuts if their children get hurt at school.”
Plainly, if politicians talk disingenuous rubbish about the improving nature of risk then so, equally, do many parents. Schools may be over-zealous enforcers of safety regulations, but it is parents who invest in buggies built like tanks, and in four-wheel-drive tanks used as buggies, parked in mother-and-child slots designed to protect precious young legs from excessive walking.
cadaverine vestiges were detected on Madeleine's plush toy
It is not long since parenting websites now targeting Lincolnshire county council were accusing the supposedly irresponsible parents of Madeleine McCann. After that, the pursuit switched to social workers for betraying Baby P.
Contrary to Tory principle, mollycoddling in schools is not all bigstate officialdom gone mad, but an answer to the public mood post Dunblane, Soham, successive child protection failures and occasional, inexcusable accidents on Outward-Bound style adventures of absolute pointlessness (unless Sir Digby knows some CEOs who owe their careers to kayaking). Not forgetting Esther Rantzen and her tireless efforts for the compensation culture: “How much could you claim?”
One of the charms of The Dangerous Book for Boys, of course, is that it depicts a prelapsarian, pre-Rantzen state in which parents thrill with pleasure, rather than dread, when a child requests the tree, timber, drill, decking, hammer and “60 man-hours” required to build a treehouse in their idyllic, firing range size garden.
“Along with a canoe or a small sailing dinghy,” say the authors, “a treehouse is still one of the best things you could possibly have.” Thanks.
One could easily hate the Igguldens, except that this stuff really satisfies the same kind of yearnings as Swallows and Amazons and The Railway Children, Just William and the Famous Five. Touching as it is, that Gove should share this glimpse of his fantasy world, we are stuck with Jacqueline Wilson.
The Observer | 2010-09-19 | UK | Page: 33 Paper Edition - online here