Everyone knows that writers don’t just write.

Aside from walking dogs and riding horses with a soupcon of parenting and bill paying on the side, I do festival talks, a bit of journalism, some teaching, and run a monthly storytelling group called True Stories Told Live with three other Londoners (Kerry Shale, actor; Kate Bland, radio producer; David Hepworth, all round music eminence gris). We do it for love (as opposed to money) and it’s turned into a pretty successful evening out.

And now I’m getting to the point.

Last night in Camden, at our monthly packed evening, we heard from Bobby Baker about how she was about eight when she and her brothers found a bomb in their basement and a constable on a bicycle borrowed a shopping bag from their mother to package it up and take it away.  We also heard from Julia Eccleshare  about a family assault on Ben Nevis (before mobile phones) that ended with two young sons being sent for help in a stranger’s car flagged down on the road.

In a recent class I taught, I asked a group of kids about the most dangerous thing they’d ever done.

After a long pause, a boy of about 13 put his hand up.

“I once left the top off a pen on my mum’s sofa.”

And I remembered being ten when we put pennies on the tracks behind our house for the trains to flatten (having been strictly forbidden to play there).  And jumping over waves all day in wild seas while our parents chatted away up the beach. And hitch-hiking.  And sailing.  And lighting fires in the woods.  And riding our bikes (no hands) down the steep hill we lived on. And huge raucous neighbourhood games of hide-and-seek that once resulted in my sister being locked in a post box for hours.

Without health and safety and helicopter parents, things happened. Not all of them good.

I remember a 13-year-old drowning when she got caught under a big anchored wooden raft we all used to jump off at the ‘quiet’ beach. And my father talking on a scratchy line to a French doctor one night when the child of a neighbour fell off a horse (presumably helmetless) and died in a French hospital.

But I don’t remember self-harm or insomnia or suicide attempts, and maybe that’s because no one talked about those things back then. Or maybe it’s because kids are a bit like dogs, in that the tired ones are happy ones.  And we had too many adventures back then to lie awake at night worrying about homework.


20 thoughts on “‘Keeping our children safe’ and other killing concepts.

  1. Amanda 7 years ago

    Hmm, I agree up to a point. That is, riding bikes and camping and jumping in big waves. But then I remember how many children I grew up with were blinded by a firework (2) killed by passing car (1) and kidnapped (1, but he was the son of a very rich man.) Then I’m not so sure about this anti helicopter stuff. I’d just rather mine lived.

  2. Meg Rosoff 7 years ago

    Well, I did talk about the downside (!) But I wonder if all kids survive nowadays. Any anecdotal evidence? An awful lot more anaphylactic shock from peanut allergies and asthma attacks these days…..

  3. Mark 7 years ago

    Crawling under barbed wire, getting attacked by horses, exploring abandoned prisoner of war huts, cycling down that steep hill you mentioned heading for a blind corner. Kids need to run free.

    Surely it helps you develop the ability to judge risk? And just have more fun than watching TV.

  4. Sara 7 years ago

    Would rather mine lived too but have found that in keeping them alive thus far that the monsters under the bed are never the ones I was guarding against.
    I am with Meg on letting them take risks and have adventures and weary themselves out with something other than worrying. I do enough of that for the lot of us.

  5. Mark 7 years ago

    ‘Would rather mine lived’

    This is interesting if you change the meaning of that lived…

    (I don’t have any so it’s easy for me to say things like this.)

  6. Catherine Owens 7 years ago

    I agree up to a point too. I remember having a fully fleged, quite spontaneous scribe (littel sour apples) fight in our neighbourhood one afternoon. It involved tree climbing and fence climbing and being pelted with scribes with kids that you hardly spoke to and hardly knew! I loved it! I don’t remember worrying too much.
    There is just no enough outdoor play. 🙁

  7. Kate 7 years ago

    My 12 year old daughter fell out of a tree recently, from about 15-20 feet up. She reported a clear divide in how people responded to her explanation of the resulting plaster cast. Younger ones said, ‘Why were you up a tree?’ Older ones said, ‘I’m so glad children still climb trees.’ More than one said to me, ‘You won’t be letting her do that again, then …’ and I told them that I will. All her risks tend to come from exploration – if I can do this, can I do that as well? How much further or higher can I go? These are good qualities and how else can she discover the world? I know all this logically but when I shut my eyes I can still see her falling.

  8. Maxine moss 7 years ago

    Yeah, agree, totally. And I’m pretty good about letting mine roam a bit. Just wish other parents would do it too, then they might see other kids !
    Statistically, child abductions have not risen. ( and only sometimes I torture myself by thinking that this is because there are less children about to abduct…).
    I let them out (eek, sometimes, with walkie talkies, oh dear…). And I hardly ever say ‘be careful’, except when they touch my iPad.
    We have to control our anxiety, not our children.

  9. raych 7 years ago

    I read an article on Cracked recently (RESPECTABLE REPORTING!) about how letting kids take risks is actually safer because they gain greater facility with their bodies and a better understanding of risk and fewer phobias ESPECIALLY IF THEY GET HURT and I totally agree IN THEORY but in practice I have to stuff my hands in my mouth to keep from wrapping Eleanor in bubble wrap. Help me god if she ever wants to ride a horse.

    1. Meg Rosoff 7 years ago

      An awful lot of parenting requires stuffing hands in mouth to keep away from the bubble wrap. But it’s worth doing anyway.

  10. Jon M 7 years ago

    I think a lot of children still do those things but more should. But I think adult tolerance for mischief has dwindled too. I grew up roaming fields and woods, fishing and fighting and lighting fires. Some of the thinds we did bodered on criminal and I’m sure some kind of Asbo would be slapped on us now and we’d be branded as ‘feral.’

  11. Jon M 7 years ago

    Sorry… ‘things’ and ‘bordered’…should’ve gone to school more eften too! 😉

  12. EmmaH 7 years ago

    Alas, free range kids are a thing of the past. Freedom, danger, adventure, boredom are all unknown to them, and I really worry about the kind of adults they will become.

  13. Lucy Coats 7 years ago

    I live in the country, and let mine ride horses bareback and go off on long treks with sandwiches. They always had a mobile, though. They also climbed trees and played by the weir, and jumped off walls. But I did a lot of hand stuffing in mouth, and they were a lot less free than I was – and when daughter started to go to London by herself (aged 16), I did panic and insist she was always with someone. I used to cycle miles (aged 9ish) down tiny country lanes to visit friends. No one ever asked me to phone home to say I’d arrived safely. I nearly cut off my finger with a Swiss Army Knife when I was ten, carving my initials in a tree, set a tree stump on fire (by mistake) and much more. I certainly learned from my mistakes – and I think that’s the problem today. Helicopter parenting doesn’t allow kids to MAKE mistakes to learn from.

  14. nicola baird 7 years ago

    Good points – especially making mistakes (and being sure to be lucky – remember in Swallows & Amazons when the dad says “only duffers drown”?!). But we can give our kids skills so they can judge risk; and we can help encourage everyone’s kids outside, because that’s where this all starts from. Encouraging play along pavements/in the street/ on waste ground can only happen if at the same time we drive with more care/less and slower. Anyone who lives near football grounds is in a good position too to encourage outdoor play as lots of roads get shut for the game.

  15. Jake Elliott 7 years ago

    Hmm… That last paragraph seems like it was based off somebody… Somebody familiar… Hmm…

  16. Christin 7 years ago

    I think there is a far too common belief that certain activities (such as playing video games/being online) are “safer” than the potentially dangerous outdoor activities you describe. I think it is very difficult to want to keep your children from physical harm while still allowing them to have real experiences. As a teacher, so many of my students haven’t had any real experiences, yet suffer some of the issues you described in the last couple of sentences. Indeed, is our awareness of these issues because no one used to talk about it, or because it didn’t exist? Either way, helicopter parents or not, children are suffering.

  17. Erika W 7 years ago

    Oh Kate, my first reaction on hearing that my grandson had broken his arm falling out of a tree was “Hurray!” Happily the grandchildren live in very rural Texas and their childhood sounds much like their mother’s and also my own.

    Worst thing I and sister, with friends, did was nearly start a woodland fire. Made a bonfire to boil a dead crow to get its bones. Didn’t work of course but a lot of weeds and grass caught fire and blazed merrily. We did have the sense to stomp it out and push earth over the smolder. Then we returned the borrowed saucepan to the kitchen. When I told my mother this years later her horrified reaction was “Oh God–did you wash the saucepan?”

  18. Eliza 7 years ago

    response EmmaH’s comment;

    free ranging kids are not a thing of the past, at least not the village where I come from, which reminds one a lot of the Shire from Lord of theRings. And definatly I would class my self as having been a free range kid, and relitivley dangerous too. I remember once nearly decapitating my self as a pane of glass slid down of a greenhouse roof on my Grandparents tumble down farm. And another time ending up having an operation to resew the tendons on my hand after a twenty second fight: wooden sword versus penknife. The penknife won.

    No kids are definalty not getting safer or being kept safer I think there is just that we hear more about the ones that aren’t doing anything interesting because all the ones having a great time are out doing something fun rather than facebooking about it for example…

  19. Lynne Harris 7 years ago

    Great blog Meg, thanks.Took me back to my childhood … leaving early to do my paper round and getting into a field of horses and thinking what fun it would be to actually climb onto a ponies back …the pony didn’t think it was such a clever idea. Thankfully the other somewhat startled beasts in the paddock didn’t trample me to death as I fell off. And the long, lone helmetless bike rides through English villages where I could have met my untimely end at the hands of any deranged psychopath on the lose, not to mention the speeding tractors round every other bend. My husband has even wilder stories of pipe bomb making and “what I shot at out of my bedroom window with my air-rifle”. The closest my kids get to such fun and adventure is listening to their parents recounts of youthful shenanigans and reading Enid Blyton.

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