End the cotton wool culture for kids

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Australian Financial Review 31st January, 2014

A lot of nonsense has been written lately about young people, alcohol and violence. But there's one particular bit of nonsense that stands out. It's this statement from Michael Daube in The Sydney Morning Herald last week: "Today's youth have vastly more freedom than before, and are much more affluent." Daube is a professor of health policy at Curtin University and one of the country's leading public health experts. Daube was arguing for more restrictions on the sale of alcohol and tighter regulation of licensed premises in NSW. He didn't point out in his article that in NSW the rate of violent incidents on licensed premises and alcohol-related assaults have both been falling. Nor did he point out that per capita alcohol consumption in Australia has been going down. Yet this didn't stop him calling for even more government controls on how people spend their money and their leisure time.

It's true that today's youth are more affluent than in the past, but if Daube thinks youths have more freedom then he hasn't been to a school, or a children's sports event, or a playground lately.

Belgian Gardens State School in Townsville banned children doing cartwheels and handstands in the playground - even if they did them on the grass. According to the principal, "gymnastic activities" were classed as a "medium risk level 2" in the Queensland Activity Risk Management Guidelines.

Mount Martha Primary School in Victoria banned children from touching each other after some students suffered playground injuries. The school said a ban on students playing tiggy and doing high fives was "not an overreaction". A student at the school who put his arm around a friend who was winded was punished by being forced to walk around the school grounds with the teacher on yard duty.

BANNING TRADING CARDS

It's not just physical danger that children are being protected from.

Last year Southmoor Primary School in Melbourne banned students from trading football cards. The principal said that ban would "protect our little ones" and would "spare younger students the distress of bad trades". Apparently younger students were getting upset because sometimes older students made "unfair" trades with them.

Somehow, someone somewhere once decided that younger children playing sport should not be allowed to know the score. It's now a widespread practice. Last year I was coaching my son's Under-8s cricket team in a neighbourhood tournament in Melbourne conducted by the local cricket association. In response to a request from one of the children to be told what the score was, I made the mistake of telling him how many runs had been scored and how many wickets had fallen. Unfortunately this exchange was overheard by one of the event organisers who said the child should have been told the score was unimportant and the only thing that counted was having fun.

To no avail did I try to explain that the child's idea of fun was in fact to know whether his team was winning or losing. A further attempt to explain that every single boy and girl playing the game was keeping score in their head anyway was similarly unsuccessful.

These are not isolated examples. Some are extreme, but they're all representative of how society and the government now treat children, regardless of whether they're in primary school or are teenagers. Supposedly for their own good, children are wrapped up in metaphorical cotton wool and are protected from the risk of physical harm or psychological distress. The inevitable result is that children lose the capacity to experience a sense of adventure or responsibility or self-control. Social media and binge drinking are some of the few opportunities for self-expression young people have left.

Today's youth are less free than previous generations. It's ironic that "resilience" is the new buzzword in education given that schools and society are determined to take away from young people the very freedoms that will allow them to learn resilience. If the behaviour of young people is as big a problem as Michael Daube claims, then the way to improve their behaviour is to give young people more freedom, not less.

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