“One thing that I really love about Papi,” middle son suddenly remarked the other day, “is that he lets us do really dangerous things…”
For those of you unfamiliar with Papi, he is the children’s paternal grandfather. And for those of you familiar with Papi, you will know that my son wasn’t lying.
Even in his seventies Papi loves living life on the edge. He likes testing the boundaries. He loves arguing with authority. And he is a firm believer that children nowadays – including his own grandchildren – need more danger in their lives so they can be in control of the environment around them, rather than the other way round.
When I say danger, I’m not talking about getting my children to run across railway tracks in front of intercity trains or teaching them how to jump off sheer cliffs. (Although he did once carry daughter – aged about four at the time – across a dual carriageway, and only admitted it to me when daughter told on him. He claimed their car had been stuck in a traffic jam on one side, it was a boiling hot day, she was desperate for a drink, and as there was a cafe on the other side of the dual carriageway it seemed the most sensible thing to do at the time).
But I am talking about things like teaching them how to use a chainsaw to cut garden hedges, encouraging them to try out new science experiments which involve very dodgy chemicals, putting up high scaffolding in the garden for them to climb on, and lighting great big bonfires with them.
I do get where he is coming from. I do get that children often aren’t allowed the time and freedom just to be kids. I do get that we wrap them up in far too much cotton wool and that everything we do in our world is subjected to risk assessments and safety regulations.
And I also get that mastery actually minimises danger. That most of us learn to walk without toppling over at a very young age so walking is no longer dangerous. That our parents teach us to climb stairs so we can then negotiate them safely. That they drag us to swimming lessons week after week so we know how to be safe in water.
But it’s the next bit that I struggle with. When learning to walk is replaced with learning to walk across a busy main road on your own, when learning how to climb stairs is replaced with learning how to climb onto a roof with an extra long ladder to retrieve your football. When learning to swim in the shallow, local swimming pool is replaced with kayaking on the local river or open sea.
I dread it when these situations arise (and it’s happening more and more). I dread it even though my head tells me my children are learning vital lessons for life, that they need to learn how to navigate the big, bad world and in so doing, understand which risks are worth taking and which aren’t.
Perhaps I spent too much time in my life as a reporter writing stories about nasty accidents involving children, knocking on the doors of distraught relatives. Perhaps it’s just in my make-up to immediately fear the worst when it comes to potentially dangerous situations the children might find themselves in – whether it be climbing a tree, crossing the road alone, or even a teenager attending a house party where I know there will be alcohol, goodness knows what else, and perhaps no parents around. Perhaps I fear how other people might judge me if something did go wrong, branding me one of those ‘irreponsible parents’. Or perhaps it’s all rather more practical and selfish – that I really don’t want to be spending my life in A and E, waiting for another of my offspring to be glued together or patched up.
But there’s no getting away from it. I have four lively children, three of them boisterous boys who always want to be exploring the great outdoors and trying out new things, and a daughter who insisted on abseiling down a church tower at the age of ten. That, alongside a Papi who won’t accept no for an answer, and I don’t have much of a choice but to let them get at least a sniff of danger.
So I mostly have to take a big deep breath, trust they’ll be OK, and remember that at their age I was out roaming our village with friends for hours at a time, exploring the local quarry blissfully unaware of the dangers lurking just beneath the ground, and walking home from brownies in the pitch black on my own.
It’s Papi on the phone. We’re spending a few days with him and the children’s grandmother, Madouce, during the Easter break.
Might be time for one of those deep breaths.
“Really looking forward to your visit”, he says in his usual loving, cheerful but matter-of-fact way. “That large hedge needs a really good cut. Tell the children we’ll definitely have to use the chainsaw for that one. And there’s a big bonfire at the bottom of the garden ready for them to light…”