Forget hovering over your children. Experts now believe we should let them take risks – for their own sakes.

The moment Cath Prisk realised something was badly wrong with modern parenting was during a visit to her local shoe shop. Prisk, the director of the charity Play England, which campaigns for children to have access to play space, looked up from trying on a pair of flats to see a woman opposite carrying her baby in a sling. The baby was wearing a safety helmet. “I’d read about those helmets and seen them in the shops,” says Prisk, still gobsmacked. “But I never thought I’d see someone using one in real life.

A caring mother with the best of intentions? Of course. But doing the best for her child? Not if she takes the same attitude to risk throughout her offspring’s childhood, apparently.

While child-centred parenting has been the norm for the past couple of decades, new research suggests that if we want to raise confident, well-adjusted, healthy children our style of parenting has to change. Forget the “helicopter parent” (who hovers continually over their offspring), the “lawnmower parent” (who tries to mow down all obstacles in their children’s path) or the “tiger mother” (a parent who hothouses her children to succeed academically, named after the bestselling memoir by Amy Chua). We should now be learning how to be “underparents” .

At the heart of underparenting is an ethos that encourages children to do chores, learn to cook, get muddy – and fall off the climbing frame from time to time.

The woman leading the charge for change is Dr Madeline Levine, an American psychologist, who examines the benefits of healthy neglect in her new book, Teach Your Children Well.

Levine identified unexpectedly high rates of emotional problems among the teenagers she treated who came from well-off, well-educated families. The reason, she found, was that children felt under increasing pressure to do well academically, while also being chivvied into numerous extracurricular activities that would look good on school and university applications. The chance of time off to play, learn to make friends or simply be bored just didn’t figure in their hectic schedules.

“I’m not saying that doing well academically isn’t important,” says Dr Levine. “But when I talk to the CEOs of tech companies here in California, they all say that there are other skills they are looking for in their employees – creativity, flexibility, resilience, communication skills and the ability to collaborate and motivate. You don’t get those by concentrating solely on an academic measure of success.”

Levine is not alone in her concerns. Dr Amanda Gummer, a psychologist specialising in play and development, warns that if we continue continually to hover over our children, they are likely to miss out on vital “life lessons” in how to assess risks. If your child has never had to take a decision about how to spend an afternoon or been left to figure out the best way to climb a tree, he or she will fail to develop cognitive ability.

We are seeing the first generation of ‘cotton-wool kids’ growing up and they have little concept of risk,” Dr Gummer says. “They are trying drugs, drinking and driving, and doing so because they have never had to face the consequences of their actions. What would you rather – that they fell down a few stairs or off a climbing frame now, or had no concept of risk when they are older?”

What’s more, by giving up your own life to devote it exclusively to your children, Dr Levine thinks that you are sending them a dangerous message.

“Yes, by all means go and watch some of the football games your child plays. But if you give up your interests and profession to watch all of them – or spend every evening double-checking their homework rather than going out with a friend or your spouse, what are you teaching your children? You’re saying that the moon and stars revolve around them, and that you have no life as an adult.”

“We need to teach children respect and that a family works like a team,” agrees Dr Pat Spungin, child psychologist and trustee of the charity What About The Children? “So [we must] teach them to put on their own shoes, to take their bowls over to the dishwasher and put their toys away.

“If you don’t you’ll end up with the hulking teenager who lies on the sofa playing Xbox all day, waiting for you to come home and do everything for them.”

Indeed, many of us already have such teenagers. A report for the Children’s Society in 2010 revealed that three quarters of 11- to 16-year-olds had never washed their own clothes or cleaned a bathroom, while a third had never cooked a meal. No wonder some children go off to university without the most basic life skills. An American website,, has even set up a service whereby worried mothers can organise toiletries and groceries to be delivered to their children on campus, if the ability to walk into a shop and buy washing powder or baked beans seems beyond their 18-year-old.

But isn’t the problem that many harried parents fall into this trap of doing it all for their children because it appears easier and quicker? “It’s about being realistic. You don’t start children off on Shakespeare, you teach them phonics,” says Dr Gummer. “In the same way, you don’t have small children near hot fat when you’re cooking, but you start them off stirring ingredients, chopping up a cucumber, and take it from there.”

Importantly, the underparenting experts say, children should be out from under their mother and father’s feet as often as possible. However, the biggest change in parenting in recent decades has seen the reverse become the norm. In a survey conducted for Play England and published last week, almost half of the parents questioned reported that their children did not play outside because of the fear of strangers, while 46 per cent cited traffic worries and almost a third highlighted fear of accident and injury.

“Parents should be asking themselves the opposite question: what is the risk of keeping children indoors?” says Cath Prisk. “Yes, children who are safe inside will get really computer-literate. But what about the dangers of obesity? What about their mental health – learning to be sociable? And who is going to protect the planet if our children never get to see any trees?”

As ever in matters of parenting, there is a sensible balance to be found. Claire Potter, author of the new book Keeping the Little Blighters Busy: 50 Refreshingly Different Things to do with your Kids before they are 12¾, says that it is not just a question of going from one extreme to the other. No one wants to end up with no idea what their children are up to.

Potter set her son Fred challenges when he turned 13, including getting on a train by himself, getting off at the 13th stop, then going out and ordering a meal in a café by himself.

“It was about encouraging him to have freedom and independence, but I did it in a structured way,” she says. “We kept in touch once every 30 minutes by phone and I drove to collect him afterwards.”

For younger children, she suggests challenges such as giving them £5 and asking them to buy food in a supermarket that could be used to create a three-course meal (ready meals not allowed), or going to a charity shop where they can choose and buy an outfit that they have to wear for the rest of the day. “It’s all about being creative,” she says.

And, despite our nervous Western instincts, says Dr Levine, perhaps it’s a good idea to let a little “tiger mother” spirit loose and free our inner Amy Chua. “Of course [Chua and I] disagree on many things, but what is important to say is that kids are robust. They are not as fragile as we think. If we remember that, we will get towards a better style of parenting.”

By Glenda Cooper

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