Giving the young a taste of freedom

Prince Edward’s comments may have been crass, but today’s cotton-wool kids need to be allowed to take risks.

Tim Black

Tim Black
Columnist

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Once again, the most privileged care in the community scheme in the entire world was let down by one of its patients being allowed to interact with members of the public. The only surprise was that it wasn’t Prince Philip emptying his brain through his gob, but the ruddy-faced fruit-cake of his loins, Prince Edward.

There he was, tanning his pate in Sydney during the course of a trip to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of young persons’ CV booster, the Duke of Edinburgh (DofE) award scheme, when he was asked about the death of 17-year-old Australian David Iredale in 2006. Given that a significant part of the DofE award scheme involves relatively unsupervised trekking across the countryside for several days, the question was relevant. Having got lost and then run out of water, Iredale had died during a similarly unsupervised ramble in the New South Wales Blue Mountain region.

Edward responded by drawing an analogy with the death of 16-year-old Ray Guyatt during a DofE training exercise in 1961. Far from putting people off, he said, it improved the scheme’s appeal: ‘Its reputation among young people was, “Wow, this is serious”.’ In other words, the risk attracted young people. ‘The sense of adventure’, he continued, ‘the sense of excitement, that it gave you that sort of risk element, young people are like that still; that sense of adventure, that sense that [death] is possible. Obviously we don’t want that to happen, certainly it’s not our intention… It was just that psychology about what makes young people tick.’

It’s not difficult to see why some might have deemed Edward’s response ‘crass’ or ‘insensitive’. He seemed to be saying that a teenager’s death was good PR. And this is not helped by him being who he is – so not only was it ‘crass’ and ‘insensitive’, it was also a ‘gaffe’, a word rarely used without its ‘royal’ prefix. Hence the Independent was quick to slip it into a right royal list of ‘gaffes’, describing it as a ‘another royal blunder down under’ akin to Philip’s ‘throwing spears’ jibe to Aborigines. And if that wasn’t enough, Edward’s own history rather undermines his hymn to thrill-seeking. This, after all, is a man so resilient and adventurous that he dropped out of the Royal Marines after serving just four months to pursue a career in the theatre. Andy McNab he is not.

But if you look beyond the clumsiness of what was said, and the unsuitability of who said it, was it really such a shocking thing to say? In fact, did Edward not actually have a point? Surely an activity does become more interesting, more appealing, if there is some element of risk involved. If you remove that element you divest an activity of consequence, the sense that it matters. And that’s where the true shock value of Edward’s rambling response about rambling lies. In societies in which keeping young people safe – safe from strangers, safe from traffic, safe from failure – is paramount, to state that some things are more important than being safe, such as excitement or adventure, appears well and truly as a bit of a gaffe.

The cosseting of children happens from an early age. In 1970, 80 per cent of primary school children walked to school by themselves. Now it’s nine per cent. In 1970, on average children would play up to 840 metres away from their homes. By 1997 few would venture beyond 280 metres (1). Now the doorstep would be the boundary of a child’s existence. Playing outside, walking to school, speaking to adults – all of these everyday activities are now sources of parental anxiety in relation to children.

So, while there’s little doubt that children’s lives have never been more safe, or better still, more regulated, they’ve also never been more stultifyingly boring. And if you breed unadventurous kids, you’re going to get unadventurous adults.

This isn’t just about thrill-seeking, adrenaline-rushing activities. It’s about giving young people the space to develop, to begin taking responsibility for themselves, to forge their own relationships, to learn how to get on and how not to get on. Or as it used to be known: growing up. And the only way to do that is to let children and teenagers start exploring the world on their own terms, whether that’s playing in a park 900 metres away, or trudging around the Lake District in early February, camping on Farmland and shitting behind dry-stone walls. That there’s risk involved is no bad thing. It means that there’s autonomy involved, too, and that young people are beginning to grasp how they themselves ought to live in the world.

There is, of course, more to youthful experimentation than the DofE. Like elocution lessons and membership of Amnesty International, there’s something cloyingly middle-class about a scheme often seen as little more than a way of fleshing out a university application. But the principle matters. Entrusting young people with their own lives is important. That that means they might mess up, that they might get hurt, that they might not get things their own way, is a necessary part of becoming an adult. The alternative is a society of big kids.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Rob Lyons defended spontaneity. Helene Guldberg said we shouldn’t blame parents for ‘cotton-wool kids’. Angus Kennedy wasn’t keen on the UK government’s new risk advisory committee. Stuart Waiton explained how risk aversion is driving children away from swimming pools in Scotland. Or read more at spiked issue Risk.

(1) See Rearing children in captivity, BBC News, 4 June 2007

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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