In today's "cotton-wool culture", children, it's often claimed, are rarely left to learn from life's hard knocks. Instead, adults tend to adopt a safety-first approach, even if the risk amounts to little more than a grazed knee

Would you let him carry on?

Boy on plank of wood
The British state as parent has become reluctant to take risks

Sawing through a plank of wood which is the only thing between you and the stream below isn't very clever, but would you stop this boy, or let this boy carry on to teach him a lesson?


In today's "cotton-wool culture", children, it's often claimed, are rarely left to learn from life's hard knocks. Instead, adults tend to adopt a safety-first approach, even if the risk amounts to little more than a grazed knee.

But the photo on the right is being used to challenge this reluctance to take risks. It is all part of a new approach to improve the lives of children in care, called social pedagogy, which is currently being piloted by the government. The term is used to described a form of child development aimed at increasing a child's personal responsibility.

As part of the approach, carers are asked to look at the picture and consider what's the worst that could happen. But they are also required to consider the benefits of letting the child carry on sawing.

So what would you do if confronted with the same situation? Here, four people with an expertise in child development offer their views.


Frank Furedi

One of the best ways for children to learn is from experience, it helps them manage problems around them. An adult's instinct is to say no, but people should just relax and let the boy carry on if there is no real danger.

There is a relationship between action and outcome. Even if that action is a bit painful, the outcome can be positive. If the child learns from the experience then that's a good thing.

In today's society we are programmed to always imagine the worst-case scenario. Every new experience with a child seems to come with an elaborate health warning. Things are at absurd proportions and we are now seeing an unprecedented level of parental insecurity and anxiety.

It's hard to let go of this way of thinking, but people need to. They are adults and are able to judge situations for themselves.



Sue Palmer

Boys need to take risks, it's in their DNA. If he isn't in danger and you are happy for him to keep on sawing, then let him. By being so risk adverse people are denying children the opportunity to learn how to make assessments about what is dangerous and what is not.

Throughout history and across all cultures, the way a child has learned what is safe and possible is by going out to play and taking some risks. If you don't allow them these opportunities to learn they will grow into adults who lack resilience.

The British are particularly over protective. It was never a problem in the past. I was allowed to play in bomb sites when I was young. My grandfather would just tell me not to touch anything that was metal.

This change of attitude is partly down to today's litigious culture.


Penelope Leach

My gut reaction is to hope an adult would point out why sawing the plank he's standing on is not a good idea. If he decides to carry on, and the adult doesn't think he is any serious danger, then let him.

I think the issue of encouraging children to take risks is very complicated. It's all about how serious the risk is and that can a be such a grey area. It's hard to arrive at a definitive answer.

Take the incident this week when a girl was killed in a sledging accident, I wouldn't dream of banning sledges because of this. But I would ban children from riding bikes without safety helmets because we have the statistical evidence that it is dangerous.


Professor Joe Elliott


It's crackers to keep children isolated from risk, they will end up with no notion of danger.

By wrapping them in cotton wool and not allowing them to learn about the element of risk you are doing them more harm than good. If the person with the boy doesn't think he is in danger, then let him continue sawing.

Such situations are always a balance and are never black and white. This is why children need to learn about making an informed decision. It is also why exercises like this are good. It's about exploring the issue, not just saying yes or no.

Part of the problem is that people are so cautious in today's litigious society.