Scariest school run

Paranoid parenting and the “protective” coddling of cotton wool kids are rightly being challenged these days even from such a professionally risk-averse source as Britain’s Health and Safety Executive. Over-protection has made children prisoners in their own homes and led to an epidemic of obesity. It renders them timid and fragile as well: even mild criticism is enough for the snowflake generation to fall to pieces, and the intolerance of robust debate among students of this mindset has become so debilitating as to present a grave threat to free speech.

In the face of these alarming trends there is increasingly a consensus that a bit of adventure in childhood is healthy, and is needed in order to grow towards real maturity. But where are the limits to be set? And on what basis?

A glance at the above photo of what has been dubbed the world’s scariest school run, in China, is enough to remind us that too much is sometimes demanded of children, rather than too little. In this case children as young as six from Atuler village in Sichuan province have to scale a sheer rockface over 2000-feet high to get home from school, using rickety ladders. But this isn’t even  the most dangerous part, which is an exposed path on the cliff without a vine ladder. A number of kids have slipped. And, yes, fallen to their deaths. But this is a poor part of the country; without an education and job prospects the future of every pupil would be bleak: just as the cliff punishes error without mercy, there is even now in this modern “Communist” country no universal welfare safety net to break their fall into hunger and malnutrition, which afflicts up to 15% of the population. Life may have been more secure for many in the days of “cradle to grave” workplace support in state enterprises, before the reforms of the late 1970s.

So, horrific as this climbing ordeal is, the risk-taking is rational in the circumstances. It is simply a harsh necessity for the villagers, not unlike the fierce training and initiation rites of young warriors in tribal societies constantly at war with each other. In those societies, where the warriors depend for their lives on the strength, skill, endurance and courage of their comrades, the apprenticeship often seems more gruelling than the warfare itself, featuring rituals than can involve being beaten, slashed and scarred, circumcised, sub-incised (don’t ask: it’s hideous), brutally raped, and made to leap over pits full of sharpened stakes. So, not only must children face danger bravely but these ordeals also have the effect of weeding out the weak. It is an education system in which failing your exams means death – and in many places, such as ancient Sparta, the weeding out started at birth, when puny-looking babies were simply left on a mountainside to die.

But if exposing children to danger is inevitable in societies with fewer viable options than our own, what are we to make of embracing serious risk when it is not necessary? Spain, for instance, is a wealthy modern country. There is high unemployment right now but people are materially quite secure and well-fed. Their last war was generations ago, in the 1930s; they do not need to train children for physical courage. Yet they have some very lively traditions that do make such demands, including the “castells” of Catalonia, these being human towers up to more than 30ft high, typically topped by a child, who may be only five years old, or even four. This crowning glory of the castell, or castle, is called the enxaneta. The origin of the name is lost in obscurity but one suggestion is that it comes from a regional word meaning  “little arrow”, or the tip of an arrow.

Castell

What is far more certain is that the child enxaneta who daringly climbs so high and so precariously invariably shoots an arrow of pride into the heart of his – or her – community.  It is pride that belongs to them all, for it takes a takes a whole village or town to provide the manpower, organisation, cooperation, skill, community spirit, determination and sheer courage out of which these towers are built. Both the pride and the courage are supremely symbolised in the enxaneta’s triumphant final act at the summit, which is to raise one hand aloft with all fingers spread, a gesture evoking the stripes of the Catalan flag.

Make no mistake, these towers are dangerous. The Catalonia Department of Culture has sponsored a FAQ claiming serious injuries are rare, based on an estimated collapse rate of the towers of only 3%; but you don’t need to know much about gravity to understand that bodies tumbling down on top of each other from a great height will do so with fearsome force. The words promoting a documentary film on the towers gives a more realistic impression:

Human towers are medicine for the soul. You risk your life for a moment of sublime camaraderie and community. Trust is paramount. All it takes is one shaky foot and the entire tower falls, sending you and hundreds of others tumbling into the air, onto each other and then onto the pavement.

You risk your life. The life of a child enxaneta is at risk. This is no exaggeration. A child died in 1983. More recently, Mariona Galindo, aged twelve, died of head injuries after falling from a nine-storey human tower at her home town of Mataró, north-east Spain in 2006. As for broken bones, they must surely be a more common occurrence.

But this level of risk is apparently fine by the Spanish authorities. And the United Nations, committed to upholding children’s rights (Article 6, right to “survive and develop healthily”;  Article 19, right to be protected “from being hurt and mistreated”; Article 36, right to be protected from any activity that “could harm their welfare”) has explicitly said the human towers are A-OK: the UN cultural agency UNESCO has declared the castells to be part of the “intangible cultural heritage of humanity”, no less.

Quite right too, in my view, although I am sure I would be struggling with the idea as a parent. I would die of anxiety if a kid of mine were taking part, in fact I am pretty sure I would be too scared to let it happen. The first  word that came into my mind when I saw that word enxaneta was anxiety: surely it had to mean “the anxious one”, or else the one whose parents were worried sick, praying on the sidelines, unable to watch.

Tough one, isn’t it? But a quick calculation based on the festival schedules shows that if you make allowance for practice runs there must be thousands of castells built each year, and my estimate from this is that in terms of the death rate, at least, they are only slightly more dangerous, if at all, than children’s exposure to road traffic accidents. Every death on the roads is tragic, of course, but going back to a society with no motor traffic would inevitably entail leaving behind many benefits of the modern world as well as its perils.

We could do without castells more easily, but just look at their positive side. Just think what it must be like for the successful enxaneta, basking in the glow of parental and communal pride! Just imagine the excitement, the sense of having really lived that day, and the confidence they would take from such a magnificent achievement. They will take away a belief that “I can do it”, a mindset of huge benefit when brought to all sorts of new challenges, be it learning how to cook, or swim, or even playing a musical instrument and mastering tough maths. Such self-belief is priceless, and it may last a lifetime. That is surely a prize worth having.

Is there a message for (or about) Kind people in this?  I think there is, because children’s abilities and confidence on their journey towards maturity will be enhanced or held back depending on the degree to which they are allowed to explore and discover things for themselves, both in their geographical environment – breaking out of the domestic prison into their town and country surroundings – and their social environment, meeting and engaging with new people, including Kind ones.

As Lenore Skenaze, founder of Free-Range Kids, has pointed out, parents who allow this are not irresponsibly taking risks. The risks in reality are vanishingly low, while the attempt by helicopter parents to eliminate all hazards from their kids’ lives can actually leave them more vulnerable to harm because such parenting leaves children helpless as babies. Even the most vigilant  “helicopter” cannot be airborne constantly, so where’s the protection in the downtime?

Skenaze was dubbed The World’s Worst Parent after allowing her nine-year-old  son to ride the New York subway on his own in 2009. But then she wrote a book Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry) explaining why allowing kids some independence makes sense. And now there is a burgeoning Free-Range Parenting movement.

“A lot of parents today,” Skenazy says on her website, “see no difference between letting their kids walk to school and letting them walk through a firing range. Any risk is seen as too much risk. But if you try to prevent every possible danger or difficulty in your child’s everyday life, that child never gets a chance to grow up. We parents have to realize that the greatest risk of all just might be trying to raise a child who never encounters choice or independence.”

She has a lot of sensible things to say about how Stranger Danger has been over-hyped, and she has even had the courage to point out that very few strangers, even when they are registered as sex offenders, are dangerous types of the kind who might kidnap and rape a child. Also, as she says in her website FAQ, the confident, independent youngster who is used to talking to strangers, will be much better equipped to smell a rat if some guy is trying to lure them into the back of a van. For one thing, they won’t be afraid to yell out and appeal for help to another stranger, knowing full well that most people are OK and would be keen to stop an abduction – and that goes for Kind people too.

*****

Enxaneta: This documentary produced by Televisió de Catalunya is not in English but the spectacular tower-building action speaks for itself, and the emphasis is on the highest climbers: the kids who reach the top.

Forces of Nature Taster This brief trailer related to the BBC’s Forces of Nature programmes features seven-year-old enxaneta Carla. The cinematography is superb, as might be expected from a prestigious BBC science documentary series.

Forces of Nature with Brian Cox – 1. The Universe in a Snowflake This is the full one-hour programme in which renowned physicist Dr Brian Cox uncovers how the diversity of shapes in the natural world reflect the rules that govern the universe. In Spain he shows how an attempt by hundreds of people to build the highest human tower reveals the force of gravity and how human bodies can be organised to counteract it, briefly but in fine style. The entire programme is well worth watching but the human towers sequence starts around five minutes in and lasts about seven minutes.