I was playing the swinging game with my daughter Iona when I felt her arm crack as I swung her into the air.
The rest of the day was spent in an A&E ward where Iona was treated for a twisted elbow.
As a nurse examined my teary daughter, her first question to me was whether we had ever been visited by social services.
My heart pounded. What was she insinuating? Did she honestly think that I had intentionally hurt my child? With a grim feeling of sickness, I realised how dangerous it now is to encourage your children to take risks.
I’ve always been a fan of pushing my children out of their comfort zone. Overcoming fear is one of life’s most important experiences, and the buzz you get from it is utterly empowering. But challenging your children like this today isn’t as straightforward as you might imagine.
Modern parents are plagued by advice, cautions and horror stories that scare us into preventing our children from taking calculated risks. This hasn’t always been the case.
As small children, my parents allowed my two sisters and me to roam the village where we grew up, often not seeing us for hours.
We’d return at dusk, muddy, tired, often wet, cold and slightly injured. That was very much the norm; it was what all our friends did. These were the days before the days of over-officious social services and ’elf and safety inspectors.
As I watch my children mature, I’m slowly realising how toxic this modern-day adversity to risk is. One friend, who moved to the country to give her children a more liberated childhood, was horrified when her rural school informed her that the three-legged race had been banned from sports day after a risk-assessment had deemed it dangerous.
When a PE lesson was cancelled because the grass was too wet, she seriously considered moving back up to London. Another friend was appalled when she went to visit a nursery and found a group of three-year-olds wearing safety goggles because they were handling ‘killer’ Blu-Tack.
Conkers are now regarded as being as dangerous as flick knives, and we have a generation of children who can’t skip because skipping ropes are considered too hazardous.
Before I had children, I laughed at the absurdity of all of this, but I now see the impact on their lives. I am determined that my children should have what I believe is a normal childhood; I actively encourage them to push themselves and take risks, which is why I signed up my children Ludo, seven, and Iona, six, for The Little Welly Goes Wild, an adventure race for children as young as four.
Conkers are now regarded as being as dangerous as flick knives
It is an offshoot of Tough Mudder, the popular obstacle course for adults in which contestants are plunged into icy water and have to negotiate black tunnels and electric wires.
In The Little Welly Goes Wild, children clamber over wooden walls and wade through muddy rivers. The 1.87-mile course is supervised, of course, and parents can accompany their offspring, as my husband Ben and I did, but children as young as four can compete alone. Extreme? Maybe. But aren’t these experiences what life is all about?
For it has slowly dawned on me that our fixation with health and safety is starting to go too far. In response, I’ve tried to let my pro-risk attitude define my role as a mother. So here’s my riposte to the health- and-safety brigade.
First things first: all children will fall down the stairs at some point. I remember when Iona was crawling and she was obsessed with trying to climb the stairs.
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After two months of chasing after her, saying ‘bottom first, darling’, I decided to set up an accident to enable her to learn. I created a soft landing with a handful of dog beds placed strategically at the bottom of four stairs that lead into our kitchen. As she approached headfirst, rather than intervene, I let her fall.
I was obviously there to catch her and make sure she didn’t hurt herself, but the shock frightened her. She cried for a bit but it was the last time she tried to go headfirst down the stairs.
When Ludo was two, he came running into the kitchen and hit his head on the corner of our island unit.
If you ban your children from playing with fire, you are unwittingly fostering a fascination
Horrified, a friend, who had come over for a cup of tea, suggested I go out and buy padded corners – which are seen as an essential part of baby-proofing kit. I told her that not only are those padded corners hideous but a key part of growing up is learning from accidents. Ludo never did it again.
Children have fun taking risks. For Iona’s fourth birthday, instead of booking the obligatory entertainer who would do magic, model a few balloons and tell bad jokes, I organised a water fight. The children got wet, slipped, grazed their knees and got squirted in the eye but the tears didn’t last for long and the whole group agreed it was the best party ever.
Far from being reckless, I think trusting children and giving them presents that require a degree of responsibility is the kind of education they all benefit from.
In their stockings last Christmas, Ludo and Iona each got a whittling knife which provided them with hours of entertainment while the (superficial) cuts taught them much better than we could have done to respect knives.
Their intrepid father, Ben, has taught them how to start a fire with a magnifying glass. While we all know fire is dangerous, if you ban your children from playing with it, you are unwittingly fostering a fascination with something hazardous that your children will explore in secret.
The same goes for dirt. I hate the fact that society has become so scared of bacteria. Exposure to bacteria, dirt and animals is fundamental to a child’s long-term health. Anti-bacterial gels are the enemy of healthy children, and studies have shown that children who grow up in an environment with animals and not too much cleaning are less likely to suffer from allergies.
Ludo and Iona’s father, Ben (pictured), has taught them how to start a fire with a magnifying glass and they were bought whittling knives for Christmas
Increasingly research is also pointing to the fact that it is beneficial for children as young as four to have strong core stability and fitness.
Ben Marsh, a physio who has worked with Southampton Football Club, tells me that intensive fitness training now starts at age eight in most football clubs because early strength-building has such an impact on long-term physical capabilities.
It’s not as crazy as you might think. ‘Paediatricians all agree that encouraging your six-year-old to run a mile, perform planks and do core-stability exercises is possibly one of the best things you can do for their long-term physical health,’ my GP sister Dr Chiara Hunt tells me.
She refers to the work of Dr Nathan Hasson, a paediatrician and rheumatologist at Great Ormond Street Hospital, who has written about modern-day myopathy, a muscle disease that is caused by chronic weakness in today’s children.
Thirty years ago all healthy children were deemed to be of normal strength, scoring 5/5 in the Oxford manual muscle test, a scale used by physiotherapists to assess muscle strength. Most ‘healthy’ children he examines today score significantly lower than previous generations, and this is impacting their health.
‘We need to push forward with initiatives on muscle-strengthening for all our children,’ he argues.
So maybe races such as The Little Welly Goes Wild are the way forward. As my nervous offspring watched children smaller than them shriek with delight as they leapt across crates, courage coursed through their veins and, before I could give them my hand for support, they had charged across daunting obstacles in pursuit.
They crossed the finish line in a blaze of glory and as we drove back home, Ludo piped up: ‘Mummy, that was the best fun I have ever, ever had in my life’.
So let people call me a tough mother. The truth is, it would be much easier – not least on my frazzled nerves – to wrap them up in cotton wool.
But as I reflect on the obstacle course and pick chunks of mud from my hair, I look at my children – splattered in mud, their little hearts beating with excitement, eyes gleaming with pride – and I realise I have never seen them look so alive.