Monday, 31 January 2011

Beware Dangerism by Gever Tulley

Lowdown: The case for letting children have hands on experience with danger.
By normal standards, Gever Tulley's Beware Dangerism is not a book. Were it to be printed on paper it would probably consume less than 50 conventional paperback's pages. However, Beware Dangerism is worth reviewing as a book for two main reasons: first, because after years of providing talks and intriguing presentations on the Internet this book represents one of TED's first attempts into the book publishing scene. Second, because this quick book provides an indicator for a potential future in the world of publishing, namely instant short stuff delivered straight to your ebook reader via the Internets. At $3 for my Kindle, and with an interesting subject matter at hand, I was aroused enough to have Amazon swipe my credit card.
My arousal on this matter was the result of Gever Tulley previously published book, Fifty Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do). It contains a list of activities Tulley assumes most children should do not because they're dangerous - licking a 9V battery is hardly a dangerous activity - but rather because for some wrong reason or another we perceive them dangerous and therefore require our children to engage in them in order for them to learn to properly assess danger. You can argue Tulley advocates the partaking of mild danger in order to teach safety (refer to his TED presentation here for more).
In Beware Dangerism Tulley takes a more academic approach and discusses the theory behind his advocacy for danger as a safety measure. He defines the term "dangerism" as an irrational fear of danger that puts its subjects under real danger and explains where today's society suffers from dangerism and how, through physiological, psychological and social means we have become a society plagued with dangerism. Then he offers some solutions to the problem, as per his previous book and the above cited presentation.
There can be no doubt I agree with Tulley's main points. Growing up, I spent the bulk of my pre-teen years and early teen years playing in the street, out of direct adult supervision, and I think it did me well. By the age of 11-12 I used to go to the cinema with school friends without any adult supervision, getting there and back on a bus and engaging in other activities on the way. Safety was never an issue, I grew up to become a fine member of society and there was never a point in time where I thought the lack of adult supervision hindered my development; on the contrary, my ability to do as I wish contributed a lot to the development of my independent personality. Today things aren't like that, though: somewhere during the late eighties and the early nineties things have changed. Now parents drive their kids everywhere in armor plated four wheel drives. Now you never see children playing on their own in the street. What has happened to cause such critical changes in the way we raise our children?
My first quibble with Tulley's Beware Dangerism is that he never tries to explain this recent transition that took place in society. He does not study this historical change that took part within my lifetime (and I'm not that old!), which - in my opinion - severely affects his ability to shed light on the problem. Obviously, dangerism in the way it is manifested with children today was caused by recent factors, the study of which can shed light on the matter of prevention, yet Tulley does not delve there.
Next I'd like to move on to discuss Tulley's own way of introducing himself. He usually starts by saying he does not have kids of his own but he "borrows others'". That's fine, and I'm sure he does not mean other parents' kids any harm just because they are not his. Yet I have to question his authority on being able to relate to parents as he advocates them to let their children loose: I agree with Tulley that most of the activities we now consider dangerous, such as a play-park carousel ride, are anything but; but looking back at my own experience as a parent, remembering how hard it was to have a baby in the first place and recalling the near life events in my child's short three years old life thus far (including visits to the emergency room and ambulance rides), I cannot agree that parents should decide on their children's activities by looking at the statistics table alone. Sure, there is low danger in most of the activities Tulley cites, but there is also the fact that if something serious does happen there is no going back. Looking back at my own childhood experiences I recall jumping off a three meter wall and almost getting run over by a car as I crossed the road opposite school: both events I managed to get out of in one piece, but also events that could have easily left me dead or paralyzed. And then what?Tulley's neglectful view on this matter is evident when he mocks people for objecting to nuclear power plants despite their peerless safety record while failing to note there are other causes for objection to nuclear power (e.g., it creating the ingredients necessary for building nuclear weapons, or our inability to deal with leftover waste that will still be around for hundreds of thousands of years) and while also forgetting that in the unlikely event when things do go wrong with a nuclear reactor the result - Chernobyl, anyone? - are catastrophic. I'm not saying here that Tulley is necessarily wrong; I'm saying that it is hard to accept him as an authority on the matter when he's so casual about things.
Ultimately, my biggest criticism with Beware Dangerism is to do with its limited scope. Allow me to explain.
When I grew up I was allowed much more than going out on my own. I was also allowed to watch every movie and read every book I wanted to, and that included sexually explicit material as well as very violent stuff. Again, I am of the opinion this unlimited experience helped me grow into a better adult; however, I do not think this liberal attitude my parents allowed is adequate under today's conditions. Today there is much more material available at our fingertips, with much larger variety, and of much more extreme nature: want sexually explicit material? You can have things I wouldn't imagine physically possible with humans jump at you from the Internet instantly; want violence and you have the opportunity to be properly cruel in the very life like world of Grand Theft Auto.
One of the key events in my life I always mention is me going to watch The Empire Strikes Back at the cinemas after my first day at third grade: I mention it because it was such an awesome film, but I also mention it because it was my first proper movie watching experience. Today I have a three year old at home who already watches films on a regular basis and has, at his fingertips, access to plenty more. Such a world of change requires parents to take active measures and pull the brake before things derail, which is why we have things like film classifications nowadays, a concept completely unknown during my own childhood.
Tulley seems to totally ignore this contents related danger, focusing only on physical activities. This is where he is in the wrong: if you want to tackle dangerism, and you should, then tackle the entire package for it is all different aspects of the same problem. You cannot complain that kids no longer walk to school without acknowledging that one of the main reasons for doing that is not directly to do with fear of the child getting physically hurt by a passing car but rather to do with parents being afraid their kids get exposed to the nasty stuff that today's world is bursting to the seams with on their way. Instead of tackling the whole range of issues at hand, Tulley points at the obvious. That's fine; someone needs to do that. I, however, would welcome a more holistic approach.
Overall: Raising valid points but offering too shallow a discussion at the same time. I'll give Beware Dangerism 3 out of 5 stars, but my generosity is mainly the result of my appreciation to this format of short electronically delivered contents.

1 comment:

Uri said...

I agree with you: It’s much easier to do dangerous stuff yourself than it is to let your child do it.

Maybe I’ll just give them the first book’s list when they are 18, and let them do everything then.