Let our kids eat dirt and learn to be better adults

By Steve Gurney

Let kids be kids, says top sportsman Steve Gurney.
Let kids be kids, says top sportsman Steve Gurney.

Nine-time Coast-to-Coast winner Steve Gurney reckons Kiwi kids are increasingly bubble-wrapped in an over-regulated society. In his new book Gurney argues that children need to learn about risk-taking and our super-cautious approach is dumbing down sporting events

Generally, I've made relatively few traumatic mistakes in my nearly 30-year career as an adventure athlete. I pride myself on training to be highly skilled and competent at managing risk. Occasionally, I've managed the risk badly, pushed the limit too far and, consequently, I've "eaten dirt".

I've had too many visits to hospital for my liking, really. I've been continually learning since I was fresh out of my mother's tummy. Learning since I first put a handful of bad-tasting dirt in my mouth at a few months old. Learning since I burned myself on the hot fireplace as a 1-year-old.

I hurt myself falling out of trees as a kid, too. But the learning I got from those injuries about judging risk, heights and asking the "what if" question means I can now climb much higher and more dangerous things, like cliffs, with intelligence and survive.

Nowadays I still hurt myself, but the stakes are higher. I like to think that I'm learning and evolving naturally, as we are designed to do as human beings. But something is happening in my world that is interrupting this learning process. It's a sly, subtle almost unconscious change, but obvious to those conscious of it. It is most visible in the schools I regularly visit, but it is also glaringly obvious in the sports events I enter and in our workplaces.

It comes by many names, including cotton-woolling, nanny state, sterility and political correctness or PC. It's stopping us from eating dirt and learning. It's slowly but surely breeding naivety, and I venture to suggest that it's even breeding stupidity. It's encouraging a blame mentality and lack of liability.

We're losing that sense of self-responsibility and the sense of satisfaction that comes from using intelligence and personal skills to remain safe, strong and confident. We're building a world of naive dummies, lowering the intelligence of our society; we're de-evolving. We need a different attitude.

We need to allow ourselves to eat dirt and thereby develop immunity.

Just as our biological immunity to disease and death is developed from an early age through eating dirt, so is our physical immunity to risk and death developed from an early age by "eating dirt" - hurting ourselves, burning ourselves, falling and crashing.

Government departments are doing their utmost to prevent us or our children from hurting ourselves. For example, I visit schools through my sports ambassador work for Sport New Zealand, and I'm becoming increasingly alarmed at the overwhelming emphasis on safety and political correctness that I see in schools. I call it "cotton-woolling". I'm horrified to see lower branches chopped out of trees and jungle gyms ripped out of playgrounds so the kids can't climb, and lunchtime tag games like bullrush banned. They're trying to stop kids from hurting themselves. In the short term, it seems an admirable thing to do, but taking the long-term view, I believe we're killing them as adults.

Schools are becoming far too politically correct. They're scared of the liability. If a kid is hurt, there's an inquiry, someone has to be held accountable. The blame has to be apportioned. Someone's head invariably needs to roll. Schools and the education officials are scared they'll be found liable in a court or in front of a board of trustees and the school will get a bad rap.

Kids under the age of 10 have flexible bones; they heal quickly and thoroughly. I recall falling out of trees a lot as a kid and hurting myself. I quickly learned the folly of climbing too fast without a solid grip or too high where the branches are thin, flexible and breakable.

I crashed my trolley and knocked my head, grazed my elbows and knees. I learned about steering, tyre grip, momentum, handling skills that transferred directly to mountain biking. I've raced mountain bikes on the world stage, twice representing New Zealand at the World Championships. Sure I still crashed, but I learned how to crash well because of what I'd learned as a kid. I learned about dealing with obstacles. I built a trolley with steel back wheels that had no rubber because I enjoyed skidding. Today they call it "drifting". The skills I learned apply directly to controlling a car.

New Zealand used to be a fantastic country to grow up in as an outdoors kid. Nature, the wilderness, the hills and the beaches are so easily accessible. Consequently, Kiwi kids have typically grown up confident and at ease in the wilderness because we've spent so much of our childhood playing in and exploring the nooks and crannies of Godzone.

I like hearing and telling stories about physical and outdoors adventure, but adventure can take many forms: a business adventure, or an adventure into romance, or adventuring into the world of research and academia, for example. Whatever the avenue, I'm particularly interested in what goes on in a person's mind for them to be prepared to take the risk. I've noticed that while they're having the adventure, people are usually in a powerful state of mind. They are often truly passionate, motivated or happy.

Just take a look at babies venturing off to eat some sort of dirt - they're curious, happy and purposeful. And what's more, they learn when it goes wrong. It's this learning process that fascinates me. Observe the baby tentatively rising from hands and knees to standing, then staggering, stumbling and falling over. Sometimes there's pain and tears, but each time there's learning. Time and time again a baby goes through a cycle of failure and learning. Until finally - success!

I'm going to sound like one of those whingeing old farts that sit in their rocking chair and moan, but I have to say it anyway: I remember when... our sport used to be fun and free. We blamed no one but ourselves when we ate dirt, crashing off our mountain bikes. And I remember when each weekend it was a tough choice between the various multisport events: adventure races, fun-runs, duathlons, triathlons, kayak events and bike races. Most were run by husband-and-wife teams or the local Lions club. They were community affairs where everyone chipped in to help out because the event was to raise some funds for the local kindergarten. It was a casual, friendly and family atmosphere. We were left to figure out some of the stuff ourselves, take our own responsibility for safety, and that was a big part of the fun and satisfaction. The events were tailored to whatever river, hill, park or forest was in the area.

I remember when I could rock up to an event with whatever speedy and innovative modification to my bike, kayak or running shoes I liked, and not have it banned by some overbearing official.

With the bigger events such as Coast to Coast and the like, organisers became worried and eventually paranoid about the legal ramifications should someone take it upon themselves to push any accident through to court. I noticed a gradual but dramatic dumbing down in events in general. Compliance costs soared as health and safety officials required increasingly stringent traffic management plans and safety regulations. Things became more sterile, restricted, with no opportunity for innovation and cleverness as organisers became increasingly risk averse in their rules and management.

Humans by nature are competitive and it's through this drive to challenge each other that most of us grow and learn. Something needs to change in the big perspective of our sport so that events don't get shut down, strangled and stymied. We need challenging and exciting events to continue to provide athletes, competitors and participants with opportunities to eat dirt, to evolve and learn. I believe competitors relish and flourish on the various challenges to their skills that races present.

Every time I talk about cotton-woolling to conferences I get a sea of enthusiastic nods of agreement at my suggestions that we allow kids to eat more dirt. I've never met a person who agrees with the regulations that are sprouting up these days. I'm sure there are some who do approve of legislation, litigation, rules and nannying, of course, but they are generally the legislation makers and enforcers.

The cotton-wool cancer has spread to recreational events and facilities too. Structures such as traditional confidence courses at holiday parks have been pulled down or modified to pointlessness amid fear of liability. Schools have cancelled extracurricular weekend hiking trips for their students, not only in fear of liability if a child was injured but also because parents are unwilling help out as volunteers because of the same fears.

A major consequence of all this is that the new adventure events of the Protect-icilin era are bland and relatively sanitised. Participants these days have come to expect sporting events and adventure programmes to be totally safe and sanitised, with no need to think much at all about possible risks or about personal responsibility for their own safety. The Protect-icilin of the bureaucrats that was supposed to protect us from the pitfalls and storms of the wilderness, has incubated a new strain of participants who will kill themselves in their first forays into the wilderness of the real world.

Let kids go back to being kids. Get rid of the unwieldy burden of control. Nature already has a system that automatically works. Let them climb and fall out of trees, crash their go-carts, get scrapes, scabs and stitches and the odd broken bone. They heal quickly and easily. Better that than letting them die, along with their passengers and other victims, at the wheel of a car 15 years on. Reinstate lolly scrambles and bullrush. Stop driving them to school in cars! There's no proof that there are more kidnappings or abductions or dirty old men than there were 50 years ago, yet parents seem to fear this more now, and it's the kids who are actually suffering! Children are leading less active lives as well as absorbing the fear from their parents.

I'd like to see concerned and enlightened schools band together in support of each other and initiate common-sense action themselves, even if it means making a stand against local authorities and legislation.

From edited extracts of Eating Dirt (Random House NZ, $39.99).

- Herald on Sunday

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