A Clash of Cultures

In this article I want to describe the nature of two completely different, indeed antithetical cultures that affect the lives of children. Because culture is the air that children breathe, it infiltrates every aspect of their lives, their relationships, the space, the environment in which they grow up. This means that they will and must take this culture for granted for much of their early childhood. Far from being an esoteric or abstract matter, when we think of culture we are probing to the heart of things.

The first of these two cultures is that of the elimination of risk. It has been argued that for the first time in history contemporary western countries can be characterised as Risk Societies (Ulrich Beck: Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity, 1992). So if we focus on children we find that every institution in society is seeking to eliminate risk (and attendant harm) from their lives. Phrases such as “child protection” or “safeguarding children” give voice to this culture, but it permeates their lives day and night. If they go to school, there will be substantial fences around them and locked gates. Visitors will be vetted. A risk assessment of materials and procedures must be in place covering things in quite extraordinary detail.

The classroom and playground will have been constructed and vetted to identify and where possible eradicate risk. So equipment is standardised. Where fingers might be caught in a door there is a finger guard; there may well be notices warning them that stinging nettles sting, and brambles prick the skin. The professionals responsible for the children in these places must process every action, every space with risk assessment in mind. Should a child be lost (i.e. wander out of a classroom or even the school) then heads will inevitably roll.

And home life is constantly being restructured by this risk culture, whether inside the home or outside.

I take it that most readers of this column will be able to fill in the details of how this culture operates. The overall effect is, to use an age-old metaphor that we tend to “wrapped children in cotton wool”. As I was writing this I received an email from the Department of Health in the UK with a message: “The protection of our children is crucial”. Eliminating risk could be said to be our paramount concern: life is processed through that lens.

The other culture values that which is wild, challenging, natural, and out do doors. To get a sense of the essence of this we can cite George Monbiot’s, Feral: Rewilding the Land, Sea and Human Life. There are “woodland schools”, and children are encouraged to spend time outside of classrooms, while families are urged to get children into the great outdoors. Television programmes, holiday packages and books extol the virtues and benefits of children having direct contact with the natural (wild) world. For several years research has been undertaken at Essex University on the value of people reconnecting with nature. Their booklet Ecotherapy summarises some of their findings. For example, taking a walk in the country reduces depression in 71% of participants. Ecotherapy is a green agenda for mental health which uses outdoor spaces and nature to enhance people’s happiness and well-being.

Obviously there will always be changes in society and social behaviour over time, but there is a growing recognition that the habits and lives of children in relation to the natural world are resulting in a tendency for them to have less and less contact with outdoors. This is matched by an increasing amount of time being spent interacting with electronic images and data. Exercise and physical activity, where it is outdoors, is mostly structured and supervised.

Talk with retired people in the UK about their childhoods and it quickly becomes apparent that whether they lived in rural or urban settings they used to spend much of their free time in playing unsupervised outside. Summer holidays seemed to feature such outdoor play from breakfast until dusk.

The essence or heart of the ideal types of these two cultures means that they must inevitably clash. If avoiding risk (safeguarding) is a primary objective of parents, teachers and society, then it is obviously safer to have them in known, bounded, supervised spaces and activities. If exploring and playing in the natural world is valued, then it will always bring the risk of unforeseen and unpredictable accidents.

Before considering a response it is worth reminding ourselves of the sources of these contrasting cultures: they are not the product of individual whims and preferences, but the result of deep-seated ideologies and institutional forces. Ulrich Beck has demonstrated how risk society flows from modernity and a belief that if life is properly managed then risk should ideally be eliminated. An accident properly speaking is not an accident, but the result of poor planning and supervision. What is required is more and better management. (This is always a major theme in enquiry reports following the tragic abuse or deaths of children.)

The desire to connect with, explore and rise to the challenges of the natural world comes from a quite different source given voice by the poets and visionaries of the Romantic Movement. There a deep connection between the inner world of a human being and the world of nature. Byron put it like this: “Are not the mountains waves and skies part of me and of my soul, as I of them?” And he continued “There is a pleasure in the pathless woods; there is a rapture on the lonely shore”. Put crisply there is within the human soul a longing to connect and grapple with, to explore the natural world: to be in direct physical contact with soil, sand, rock, water, wind, grass, leaves…

An awareness of the roots and sources of the two cultures warns us against the idea that there might be an easy or uncontroversial way to integrate or reconcile them. At heart they are antithetical. Human beings who climb the walls in Yosemite National Park, who sail around the world, or who cycle and ski off-piste will often be hurt, some will be maimed, and others will die. If risk society had its way then all this would be stopped: the paramount aim for childhood would be to prevent as many injuries and hurts as possible. Insurance companies and policies are becoming more proactive in pursuit of this goal. But the desire to “go wild”, though not unaware of the risks, believes that there is a higher or perhaps deeper goal, even longing in human hearts and souls.

So what is to be done? As you will have gathered I do not believe the ultimate outcome is in the hands of individuals or interest groups: these are very deep-seated cultures embedded in the very thinking and institutions of the societies in which we live and which shape our behaviour. But here is a modest practical example of how to live where the two clash very obviously. It happens that for 39 successive years I have been taking children of different ages, backgrounds, abilities and cultures into the great outdoors called Snowdonia. We have camped under the stars beside mountain lakes; we have climbed rocks and slabs; we have traversed mountain ridges in summer and winter, day and night; we have dived into lakes, pools, rivers and waterfalls; we have kayaked on lakes and sea; we have surfed; we have sailed around Cardigan Bay. In short we have had all sorts of contact with the natural world. And it has been great fun. We did not do it to get fit, but for enjoyment.

There have been accidents including a few cuts, bruises, sprains, but thankfully no loss of life. All the while as I took ultimate responsibility for all this activity I realised that I was putting my reputation and possibly future on the line. So why did I do it, and why no serious misadventures? I did it because as a person I know that I must be in regular contact with the world of nature for my well-being. I came to love the mountains while studying in Scotland, and Byron speaks for me: the mountains are part of me, and I am part of them. I did it because I believe that children love to explore the natural world and would be diminished as human beings if prevented from doing so. They constantly asked me to take them on adventures. All the feedback I have had from them over these decades confirms me in this belief.

And I did it because in all the activities I used all my knowledge (it has grown a little over the years), training and experience, together with that of family, friends and professionals to ensure as much as I could that all the activities had been risk-assessed. I know the area pretty well and always thought carefully about weather conditions, about the terrain, the equipment, and crucially the characters and abilities of those who were coming with me on mountains or seas.

By the grace of God we have all been kept safe, but there was an ever-attendant risk that things might go badly wrong. Humans do not have the mind of God and we can never be one hundred per cent certain of anything. There were some close shaves. But we are all safe and sound.

Had it turned out differently who knows whether I could ever have written this piece? I would like to think that I would have done, but the forces of risk society would not have been kind to me. And the assumption of criticism would have been that I had not done my homework: it was my fault. There would be no way of admitting that we are all human, and that perhaps it was still worth it despite the tragedy. That is the ultimate dilemma of this clash of cultures.

1 thought on “A Clash of Cultures”

  1. Your article, Clash of Cultures, had my head nodding & my inner voice saying, ‘At last! Someone who agrees children need to learn how to negotiate risk, which won’t happen if they are denied from doing what comes naturally…exploring, climbing, taking risks.’


Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.