Traditional thinking has always been that consistent routine and order is good for kids’ development.
An Australian Story segment about an Australian father who took his son on six month African adventure that aired on ABC TV recently (24th July, 2017) challenged this thinking.
Sydney GP James Best believed that offering his 14 year old autistic son Sam more of the same, which was order and routine, was never going to develop the self-sufficiency and communication skills that he needed for a successful transition to independence.
This dad turned conventional thinking on it’s head and backpacked with his son through Africa for six months. He maintained that adolescence, like infancy, is a time of great learning, which is best precipitated by chaos and unpredictability.
On their African odyssey his son was exposed to new and potentially challenging situations that required him to find new ways of coping and communicating. By making Sam feel uncomfortable rather than protecting him from hardships James enabled his son to rapidly improve his communication skills to the point where he could hold lengthy conversations with strangers. He also developed self-sufficiency to the point where he could pack his bags, organise his own schedules and prepare his own meal. All activities that were foreign to him in Sydney.
These huge developmental leaps didn’t occur in adult-controlled environments, but in the dusty, shambolic back-blocks of East Africa where he was exposed to people from different backgrounds and enjoyed outdoor adventures such as white-water rafting that he wouldn’t experience in the relative safety of suburban Sydney.
Risk brings out new skill sets
The lessons of this television program have relevance for all parents, not just parents of autistic children. In Australia, we’ve removed most of the risks from childhood. Playgrounds are so safe they’re bland. If something is a little edgy at school we’ll ban it. In the last few years there have been school bans on hugging, swap cards and fidget-spinners to name a few. The distance children are allowed to play away from home has shrunk by 90% since from the 1970’s. Kids now spend more time in adult-initiated and adult-controlled activities in their leisure-time than playing, chilling out and just mucking around. The average Australian childhood is now mostly spent indoors.
As I wrote in my book Spoonfed Generation, kids need risk if they are going to extend themselves and become truly independent. Outdoor environments whether in the bush or in the burbs offer the kids the type of experiences that really build their confidence and they competencies they need to survive and thrive on their own.
Removal of risk leads to anxiousness
The result of raising kids in the most orderly way in this most orderly of countries is that we may have just raised the most nervous, risk-adverse group of kids that we’ve ever seen. The worst of it is that most of adults recognise that the freedoms we enjoyed as kids away from the constant monitoring and supervision of adults provided fantastic opportunities for growth and development. Yet we don’t seem to be granting our kids the same opportunities for freedom and autonomy.
So let’s all take a leaf out James Best’s book and look for ways to challenge our kids by taking them out of their comfort zones and adding some risk and spice to their lives. Give them greater freedom to navigate their neighbourhoods and let them wander further than parents feel comfortable with. Let them experience a break from routine every now and then, and don’t be afraid to throw away the clock and add a little chaos to their lives. Let them mess up and then get themselves out of the problems they made rather than rescue them from dumb decisions.
Above all love them in ways that increase their confidence levels rather than feed their helplessness, as that is what raising them in an environment of order, safety and predictability tends to do.