The Paradox of Cotton Wool
The pejorative term “nannying” has achieved widespread usage in the last twenty-five years. Surprisingly, it just happens to co-incide with the rise of the ubiquitous state and its endless “health and safety” rules. The more the state has sought to micro-legislate and regulate our lives, the more cynical and bitter its ungrateful subjects have become.
Probably in New Zealand the nadir was reached when the infamously nannying government led by “Auntie Helen” was proposing to regulate the length of showers in the nation. Why? To combat the terrible, dreadful, looming threat of global warming, you plebian numbskulls. Don’t you know what’s good for you. Fortunately, the people achieved a moment of rare sanity and unceremoniously voted Auntie Helen out.
There are many drivers of this malignant nannying disease in the body politic.
The broadest driver is religious. When a people reject the Almighty God, they become driven by vain attempts to replace His “functions”, one of which is His providential love and care of His creation. So the state steps in to provide protection, care, and provision. Father God is replaced by mother state.
Another driver is fear. Terrible dangers lurk at the fringes of life. Just as once it was thought that man-eating monsters lurked in the deep, new dangers and horrors and threats take their place to pervade the social atmosphere with gloom, worry, and general depression. To the plaintiff cry of the child-like citizen, “caring” politicians arise to protect us from the beasties.
Another is arrogance. Our culture has a deep, abiding belief in the state’s limitless competence to solve any, each, and all problems. The end result is a busybody state inserting itself into every nook and cranny of life to protect us ultimately from ourselves.
Another driver is the welfare state. Because the state pays for health, education, and welfare–and in New Zealand that represents eighty percent of government spending– it wants to control the costs of the spend by reducing demand for said services. The state reasons that it is better to set up its ambulance at “the top of the cliff” to prevent harm, rather than at the bottom. Preventative actions inevitably mean nannying the population–relentlessly nagging citizens to live the approbated life, right through to regulating what they eat, when they eat, and how they eat.
The most extreme manifestation of the malady is found in government schools. Here the state readily assumes the role of nanny to look after and protect children from all harm and danger. Rules abound on how to walk, what to eat, when to eat, how to wash one’s hands, and the allowable number of breaths to be taken in a single minute.
As with all human overreaching, the outcomes have proved perverse. Children have become uneducable. Consider the following piece in Stuff:
Ripping up the playground rulebook is having incredible effects on children at an Auckland school. Chaos may reign at Swanson Primary School with children climbing trees, riding skateboards and playing bullrush during playtime, but surprisingly the students don’t cause bedlam, the principal says. The school is actually seeing a drop in bullying, serious injuries and vandalism, while concentration levels in class are increasing.
Principal Bruce McLachlan rid the school of playtime rules as part of a successful university experiment. “We want kids to be safe and to look after them, but we end up wrapping them in cotton wool when in fact they should be able to fall over.” Letting children test themselves on a scooter during playtime could make them more aware of the dangers when getting behind the wheel of a car in high school, he said. “When you look at our playground it looks chaotic. From an adult’s perspective, it looks like kids might get hurt, but they don’t.”
Now there’s a radical thought. Children (and adult humans) learn by getting hurt. Who would have thought.
Swanson School signed up to the study by AUT and Otago University just over two years ago, with the aim of encouraging active play. However, the school took the experiment a step further by abandoning the rules completely, much to the horror of some teachers at the time, he said. When the university study wrapped up at the end of last year the school and researchers were amazed by the results.
Mudslides, skateboarding, bullrush and tree climbing kept the children so occupied the school no longer needed a timeout area or as many teachers on patrol. Instead of a playground, children used their imagination to play in a “loose parts pit” which contained junk such as wood, tyres and an old fire hose. “The kids were motivated, busy and engaged. In my experience, the time children get into trouble is when they are not busy, motivated and engaged. It’s during that time they bully other kids, graffiti or wreck things around the school.”
Is this revolutionary? Not at all. It represents a return to a saner, more wise world. Getting rid of smothering health and safety blankets turns out to be one of the most healthy and safe things to do.
Parents were happy too because their children were happy, he said. But this wasn’t a playtime revolution, it was just a return to the days before health and safety policies came to rule. AUT professor of public health Grant Schofield, who worked on the research project, said there are too many rules in modern playgrounds. “The great paradox of cotton-woolling children is it’s more dangerous in the long-run.”
Society’s obsession with protecting children ignores the benefits of risk-taking, he said. Children develop the frontal lobe of their brain when taking risks, meaning they work out consequences. “You can’t teach them that. They have to learn risk on their own terms. It doesn’t develop by watching TV, they have to get out there.”