Cottonwool culture



Cottonwool culture



We all want to keep our kids safe.

But are they too safe? Lucy Jolin

reports on a growing trend to wrap children up so securely in cottonwool that they fail to develop independence and resilience

Here’s a scary statistic: a third of children don’t play outside after school at all. In fact, three-quarters of our children spend less time outside than the recommended daily exercise period for prisoners – just an hour or less a day.


Just four in 10 parents allow children to help with cooking, and only a third of us let a child go to the corner shop, or play with a ball in a quiet street.


This ‘cottonwool culture’ is becoming an increasing part of nursery and school life too. Last year, Amanda Spielman, chief inspector at OFSTED, warned teachers that kids need to be given the chance to develop ‘resilience and grit,’ and that schools need to learn the difference between ‘real and imagined risk’. So how can we, as

parents, get that balance right?


Of course, parental worry isn’t new. ‘I don’t think we worry more. I think we worry about different things,’ says Bea Marshall, parenting expert and founder of Yes Parenting (, or visit her Facebook group Discovering Yes).


‘My grandmother’s generation didn’t worry about traffic, or screen

time, for instance. But they were worried about what it meant bringing children into a world after the Second World War.’


Things have changed a lot in 70 years. We now have more information than ever about the horrible stuff that could happen to our children. Type ‘what do parents worry about?’ into Google and you’ll get more than six million answers, including: our children’s mental health, childhood obesity, social media, terrorism, global

warming, stranger danger, being hit by a car, getting lost, seeing something inappropriate or scary on the internet, and so on.


Parenting chat rooms and Facebook groups, while providing fantastic support, can also be a source of anxiety as people share their one-off scary experiences or introduce new things to worry about that you’d never even dreamed of.


It’s a style of parenting that seems particularly common in the UK and America – but other countries do it differently? When author Sara Zaske moved to Germany from the USA, she was so struck by the differences in German parenting that she was inspired to write a book Achtung Baby: The German Art of Raising Self-Reliant

Children (Little Brown, £14.99) on what we can learn from their emphasis on ‘selbstandigkeit’ (self-reliance).


‘In the US, we say we value independence, but our parenting style

has become so dominated by fear – especially for children’s safety – that we restrict children’s movements and activities,’ says Sara Zaske. ‘Germans not only place a strong value on self-reliance, they put it into practice.


‘For instance, they teach children to light matches and use knives, rather than prohibiting their use entirely, as is common practice in the US. The prevailing thought in Germany is that it is better to teach children to use these things safely than to ban them, because prohibition often encourages kids to do things in secret, and that’s when it is really dangerous.’

5 ‘good’ worries


Some worries are perfectly realistic and may even be

essential to survival. Here’s how to deal with some of them in a positive way.


1. More than two million children a year have an accident at home, making it the most likely place to have an accident. Take sensible precautions: set hot water controls on your boiler, don’t leave very young children alone with hot drinks and store all poisonous substances well out of reach.


2. Teach your child about the dangers of traffic right from the start. Set a good example by waiting at lights and teaching the Green Cross Code – stop, look and listen. Don’t consider reasoning with a child who is about to step into the road: simply do whatever it takes to stop them.


3. The NSPCC has a superb, non-scary guide to helping your child stay safe from sexual abuse using the simple acronym PANTS – privates are private, always remember your body belongs to you, no means no, talk about secrets which upset you and speak up, someone can help. Visit


4. Ensure that you have parental controls on any internet-enabled device which your child can access – but don’t rely on them. Keep an eye on what your child watches and talk to children about

internet safety.


5. Be aware that lack of exercise and too many fatty, sugary snacks contribute to childhood obesity. Make sure your child gets plenty of opportunities to run around outside and offer a healthy,

balanced diet.



Sara Zaske believes that learning to be independent is a vital part

of growing up. ‘If we don’t let children take on new freedoms and

responsibilities, they will not suddenly know how to run their own lives when they turn 18,’ she points out. ‘If we never let kids do anything for themselves, they may also doubt their own capabilities and absorb our fears.


‘In the US, we have already seen a rise in anxiety and depression among young adults, and many believe that overparenting or “helicoptering” is at least partly to blame,’ she adds.


Parenting expert Bea Marshall agrees. ‘We want our kids to grow up with a strong sense of self-worth,’ she says. ‘We want them to be confident, resilient and know who they are in the world. If we’re always shouting: “Be careful, don’t do that, you’ll fall, you’re not big enough” the subliminal message is that our child doesn’t know enough, or isn’t aware enough. Actually, children have a strong instinct for self-preservation – they want to stay safe. And they are learning all the time.’


So how do you overcome that instinct to protect children from

harm – and grant them the freedom to make their own mistakes? Start by getting to know your child, suggests Bea Marshall. ‘Go into their world. Spend time with them. What are they watching on TV or the computer? What are they playing with?


‘If we can trust and connect to children, and respond to them as

individuals, we will build a solid foundation for what happens when we move into those older years with our children.’


Worry, says Bea Marshall, is rarely a useful feeling – unless you translate it into action. ‘Start differentiating between what is a risk of harm and what is an inconvenience. If they fall into a puddle, get muddy and you have to change their clothes – that’s an

inconvenience. Running into the road is something very different indeed!


‘Create an environment where children can be themselves,’ adds Bea Marshall. ‘One of my sons used to love cutting with scissors. We discovered this when he cut my phone charger! So I created a box of all sorts of different things he could cut and a pair of safety

scissors attached with string. He could cut and I didn’t need to worry.’


It can be hard to go against what fellow parents are saying or doing – and even risk their disapproval by doing things a bit differently. But Sara Zaske believes that it’s entirely possible for parents in the UK to help their kids be freer. ‘I have often felt influenced by what other parents might think or say. But I try to set other people’s attitudes aside and assess the real risk and whether my child is ready to do it. When I bring up the subject, I find that there are actually many people who would also like their kids to have more freedom,’ she says.


Of course, German parents worry too, she points out. But they deal with it differently. ‘I have heard German parents express the same fears we have about kids getting hurt. The difference is they do not let fear control how they raise their kids. They believe it’s really important that children learn self-reliance – that these skills are necessary to growing up. After all, at some point, everyone has to learn how to manage risk and navigate their own world.’



All by themselves!


Sara Zaske’s top tips for teaching self-reliance:


If kids can bike or walk somewhere, try to encourage this rather than driving them. With little ones, you will be walking along with them, and this gives you the opportunity to talk to them about road traffic features, such as lights and crossings, which they will need to use on their own later.


Set some time aside every day that belongs to them and let them decide what to do with it. This usually means free play. Resist the urge to intervene in their free time games.


Teach them to do simple life tasks – and let them fail sometimes.

These are things like waking themselves up in the morning, tidying

their toys, getting dressed and so on. It’s part of training for

managing their own lives.


At an age-appropriate time, talk to your children openly about

topics that they ask question about, even the more difficult ones.

Children have a right to be told about subjects such as death, in an age-appropriate way.




May/June 2018

All information is correct at time of publishing