Throwing Stones

Throwing stones has a long and chequered history. Examples that come to mind immediately include David’s heroic killing of Goliath, the throwing of stones by resistance or revolutionary movement against occupying forces, the use of stones as a method of execution, and the story of how Jesus intervened when a woman was about to be stoned on account of her adultery. This is a column on the subject that is on a far more mundane level.

It was a quiet summer evening and the tide was at the full. I had been kayaking in the estuary between Borth-y- Gest and Portmeirion, and was returning to the harbour slipway by allowing the gentle breeze to guide me gently there. As always when the tide is high there is a gaggle of people around the slipway. On this occasion there were six to ten adults and three young children. Coming into the harbour it was not clear whether any of the adults were related to the children.

At some point I realised that the children were throwing stones into the water and realised that it would not be safe to disembark until they had stopped. Then the boy threw a stone into one of the rowing boats moored near the slipway. Coming towards him was a sailor carrying a fuel container, and he explained to the boy that throwing stones into boats moored in a harbour was not an acceptable thing to do. The adults did not seem to notice his intervention. But the boy and one of the girls scampered up and over some rocks in response to this matter of fact statement showing that they saw it as a form of admonishment. The other girl however remained and as I edged nearer the slipway, to my great surprise, she threw another stone into the same boat (a tender) just a few metres from the adults and even closer to my kayak.

I spoke to her from my kayak explaining that the advice the sailor had just given to the three children was not just about a specific stone and a specific boat, but something for all time and in every situation: “never throw stones at boats”. As she too set off over the rocks, I called out that I didn’t know if her parents were around, but was sure that this was something they had probably told her about. As far as I could tell there was no reaction from the adults as I reached the shore and slipped out of the kayak.

It was my intention to find the three children if possible and to see what experience they had had of boats and harbours, but they had deliberately disappeared. So I picked up my kayak and walked with it to the garage where it was normally kept.

The following morning I went down to the harbour for an early morning swim, and sure enough, there were two of the children near the spot where the incident of the previous evening had taken place. I immediately started up a conversation by saying that I thought I recognised them as the “stone-throwers” of the night before. Were they here for the first time, I wondered? No, this was there third or fourth time they had stayed in this seaside village they told me. I said that I was surprised in that case that they didn’t realise the danger of throwing stones into boats.

They then showed me pen-knives that they had been given and the boy threw his near my feet hoping I would catch it. It landed in the sea, but I was able to retrieve it and return it to him. I advised him to wash it thoroughly in fresh water, and with a few more words we parted company on friendly terms.

Just two days later I was climbing on the Snowdon Horseshoe with one of my grandchildren starting with Crib Goch and the impressive ridge that links it to the lower of the two summit peaks of Snowdon, Carnedd Ugain. At the first cairn on our scrambling route, he picked up a rock and threw it gently on to the pile. And he continued to do this each time we passed a cairn, whatever size. On an earlier trip up a mountain, possibly Cnicht or Arenig Fawr, he had asked what cairns were for, and we explained that although they didn’t seem to have an obvious purpose on a clear day, in the mist they were invaluable route-finding guides. If there was a nearby cliff or ridge they would be placed close to one another as a way of underlining the potential danger.

And so it was that he had begun what is likely to be a lifelong habit of cairn building: helping to sustain these practical mountain markers by adding his stone each time he passed one.

Later that evening down at sea level I was informed that our little sailing dinghy had been untied on the beach where it was moored and had been filled with sand. I had hoped to leave it for a couple of weeks, but it was obvious that it would be wiser to sail it round to the harbour and stow it in the garage with the kayak. Wind and tide made it a simple enough trip.

But I was left wondering how it could be that children in the presence of adults (whether their relatives or not) were allowed to throw stones (or sand) at and into rowing boats or sailing dinghies. I can’t be sure, but my sense is that unless the adults are sailors then they see no reason to prevent such behaviour. Perhaps it would be different if there were an official-looking warning notice. They do not, or cannot, see the dangers of allowing such activity to continue, because they are unable to imagine what difficulties it may pose.

And so it is that some children grow up throwing stones in inappropriate places largely uncorrected. Meanwhile others, like my grandson, not only do not throw stones at boats, but they also help to build mountain cairns.

There is quite a chasm reflected in this contrast: on the one hand no one pointing out the dangers of certain behaviour (or if pointing it out, not reinforcing the advice in practice), and on the other, a child contributing to the well-being of others, possibly even future generations.

It is surely in unusual and unfamiliar settings and situations that children need responsible advice, and my experience is that if it is given with reasonable explanations they will, in most cases, absorb and respect it. I think of times when I have explained to other children why throwing stones down mountains is always unacceptable, and also the dangers of skimming stones in rivers or lakes when there are other human beings around. It only takes a modest step of imagination to envisage what it is like to be on the receiving end.

Why then did the adults near the slipway not intervene when the girl continued throwing stones into a boat when her friend or relative had already been told off? Why did they seem uninterested?

Have we arrived at a stage of social life when adults do not feel safe to point out the obvious to children? There will be any number of grey areas about language and behaviour, but what about things that are simply too dangerous to be acceptable in any circumstances? This was in the United Kingdom, and I know that it would not have happened in other countries including Switzerland and Holland (for example).

Over the years I have come to see that parenting is a responsibility or duty of every adult in a community whether or not they are related to a particular child. It takes a village to raise a child. And some cultures are much better at it than others. In Switzerland there is a strongly-developed sense of community (gemeinschaft), and in Holland there is a long history of sea-faring.

But the cairn building raises a further thought: does it take children raised by a responsible village to create a community? Perhaps I had this in mind when I suggested to the knife-wielding children that they might help by cutting some of the brambles that were growing across the path down to the beach. Sometimes I carry a pair of secateurs with me for this purpose, but on the morning of the early swim I had deliberately travelled light. It would have been such a pleasure to walk with them with a common sense of purpose if only for a short distance.

It is surely, as Jonathan Sacks has memorably written that in building together we learn shared values: path clearing and cairn building have this aspect in common. With this in mind perhaps we can agree on this simple principle: never to turn a blind eye to dangerous or unacceptable behaviour, but always trying to find some form of bridge so that we engage in purposeful activity together.

It is never going to work if we simply prohibit certain actions: there must be a creative and shared outlet for the energy of children. And this is why cairn building is such a good example of responsible stone throwing.

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