As a mother to two energetic, Duracell-driven pre-teens, when I open the photobooks of their childhoods they revolve, quite distinctly, around two things: rugby touchlines and football posts. Sport in all its muddy, sweaty, daredevil glory has been part of their everyday lives since they could walk and, quite frankly, they love it.
I can’t even begin to add up the hours I’ve spent shivering on sidelines cheering them on through football and rugby matches or karate tournaments, the bumps and bruises just as much a source of pride to them as the wins and metalware.
Over the years we’ve had stitches in foreheads, lacerations to knees, and we even once had a primary school friend carted off the pitch to spend three months in a wheelchair with a broken leg after one nasty, Andre Gomes-like tackle.
But free rein on the sports field is one of the few risk-taking arenas left for kids. So the news that the Scottish Football Association is moving to ban heading in training among Under-12 players is anathema to me.
The development comes in response to research by the University of Glasgow which found that former professional footballers were three and a half times more likely to die of degenerative brain disorders than the general population.
Last year, the Scottish Youth Football Association published advice that children under the age of 11 should not head the ball. It said that there was “not yet a definitive link between heading the ball and brain injury”, and labelled the move “a precaution”. But should we be asking ourselves a much bigger question here? Namely, is it really OK to remove risk completely from our children’s lives?
I am as protective of my 10 and 13-year-old sons as the next Helicopter Parent, but whatever happened to treating scraped knees and broken bones as simply a childhood rite of passage?
It’s happening everywhere I look. Our local primary school now bans scooters in the playground – for generations a harmless way to un-bottle pent up energy after school – for fear of ‘someone getting hurt’. It has transformed the once lively and sociable tarmac into a wasteland of mopish, anxious and clearly frustrated kids.
Free-range parenting (that’s raising kids to take realistic risks with limited parental supervision) is certainly something I strive for, and it isn’t easy to always get right. My 80s childhood in the back streets of North London was packed with risky outdoor play, riding a BMX around building sites, and careering down hills on nothing but a tray and a prayer.
But in an age of increasingly child-centered health and safety measures, wringing the risk out of life for children means we also risk becoming a nation of cotton-wool carers ourselves, wrapping them up with such a strangle-hold they never make mistakes or grow.
Alicia Eaton is a children’s wellbeing specialist based in Harley Street and author of First Aid for your Child’s Mind. She says: “Today’s children are suffering from more anxiety than previous generations and a reason for this could be because they have less freedom as their lives are increasingly managed by parents. Anxiety is caused by over-estimating a potential threat or risk and under-estimating your ability to deal with it successfully, so a degree of risk-taking in terms of pushing personal boundaries is essential to develop self-awareness and confidence.
“At the same time, risks do need to be assessed and where there's evidence that long-term damage could result from an activity, it's right to stop and reassess it. But sport is an ideal way of introducing risk-taking because it's usually done in an organised manner with the correct training and supervision from instructors.”
So, is the type of hyper-supervision like the kind being introduced on the football fields of Scotland the way forward for our kids? I look at my own boys and know that I will do my damnedest to make sure they have a childhood spent dangling from perilous monkey bars and running headfirst into a scrum – and yes – encouraging my under-11 to head every ball that comes his way.
Generation Z needs an element of safe, controlled risk perhaps more than ever before, doing things that take them out of their comfort zones and away from their screens.
To gain confidence, kids need to try big, scary things, and mastering them is even more meaningful when the risk of failure (or even injury) is amplified. It’s a mantra we try to live by, in the hope I am raising boys who will grow into resilient and problem-solving adults.
There’s little doubt we all want to do the best for our kids, it’s a primal, parenting instinct after all. But take away all the risk? We are simply doing the opposite.
Should children be allowed to head the ball in football? Have your say in the comments below