Wrapped in Cotton Wool

As a parent, it’s a fine line we walk sometimes in knowing where the boundaries are for your kids. We want to protect them from danger and shield them from hurt. At the same time, we need to allow them to experience the world and learn to interact with it in meaningful ways. This paradox of safety versus experience is a tricky balance to get right, but I’m convinced that we are probably the most overprotective generation of parents in history. A recent post here listed a number of tongue-in-cheek example of how much we seem to overreact to things that would have been much less of a drama a few years ago. How many of you went out playing all day when you were a kid, and the only rule was to be home by dark? No “Call me when you get there to let me know you arrived ok”… just “Bye dear, have fun playing!”

This video from the TED Talks series, called “5 Dangerous Things you should let your Children do” makes a similar observation that maybe we need to just lighten up a bit on our kids. Take a look…


In our schools I find we are developing the same, if not worse, overprotective behaviours. My last school insisted on having staff members walking the children across the road after school (it’s a high school!) – I found this laughable… we have them in class all day teaching them to be mature and independent thinkers and then we won’t let them cross a street without assistance. Our excursion (field trip) program became impossibly hard to work with over the past few years due to all the excessive safety regulations and the need to “guarantee” a safe environment outside the school. You can never get a total guarantee that a situation will be 100% safe – of course you want it to be as safe as possible – but when you start to compromise the creation of situations and environments in which to learn because there may be a small risk involved… I don’t know, that just seems silly to me. Life has sharp edges. Deal with it.

No one wants to see children get hurt, that’s for certain. Regardless of whether your role is that of teacher or parent, I’m sure we all want to see our children stay safe. My own daughter was bitten on the face by a dog a few years ago and the feeling of sheer panic and distress I felt as a parent as I looked down as the blood streaming out of the huge gash torn in her cheek was an indescribable anguish. But would I say to her to now stay away from all dogs? No way. She loves dogs. She’s fallen off a bike and skinned her leg a few times, but that doesn’t mean she should never ride a bike again. In the process of living, sometimes you’ll get a bit knocked around. That, quite literally, is life.

Kids – just like adults – need to occasionally go through some of the painful parts of life if they are to experience the wonder of what it means to live.

CC BY-SA 4.0 Wrapped in Cotton Wool by Chris Betcher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

5 Replies to “Wrapped in Cotton Wool”

  1. Well said, Chris. I’ve recently spent a week camping with my family, watching my young son and daughter climb trees, ride their BMX bikes and sleep rough under canvas – with interesting conversations with them about the novelty of it all, and how they simply don’t do any of these things in their school or home environment in the city. Of course, there are all sorts of dangers looming in the concrete jungles we’ve enveloped ourselves with, but surrounding our kids in cotton wool isn’t the answer. I see parallels in the approaches taken to “protecting” our kids from the “dangers” of the online environment – surely the answer in both instances lies in better education, understanding and awareness – and if we’ve learned anything at all from John Dewey, this should ideally involve experience (including the odd scrape to the knee, bump on the head or fright at climbing too high!)

  2. Exactly right Derek, and you’re right about the parallels with our overprotective behaviours when it comes to dealing with the online world. But maybe that’s part of the problem, maybe our overprotective nature in the physical world causes us to just naturally extend our overprotective behaviours into the online world. If you prevented a child from climbing trees, riding bikes, travelling on buses, walking down the street, going to a movie with their friends, and so on, what are you teaching that child? Very little I would think. How does one discover the boundaries if the boundaries are so close that they suffocate you?
    Some of the most influential people in history were the ones that knew how to push the boundaries and venture into “unsafe” territory. It worries me that we will end up with a generation of children who turn into adults with very limited notions about what it means to take a risk.
    Thanks for your comment.

  3. My best friend pointed out the 5 Dangerous Things post to me last night and we compared notes. Her kids have done most of the things listed–mine have done one. Something tells me I should think about being a more daring parent… lol.

  4. This is such an important issue Chris. I agree with Derek as well that there are parallels with our attitude to being online to. I was at a conference talking about an email project I was trying to get up and running when I was told by one teacher that their school (secondary) had banned email. I was gob-smacked!

    The one suggestion that I really liked and we don’t seem to do much at all was taking things apart. I sometimes feel my students (secondary)are part of a black box culture now, they don’t care how it works as long at it does and they don’t want to know how to fix it, if it breaks just get a new one! If we did a little more investigating and allowing our kids to understand that these complex systems are “knowable” then perhaps they might be more interested in finding out what actually goes on inside things.

That's all well and good, but what do YOU think?