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Over the years I have learnt a thing or two about risk, and I have often learnt these lessons the hard way — and sometimes by my errors. I am the first to admit that I have on occasions strayed the wrong side of the health and safety line, I am learning still to this day. But as I once heard said: “My knowledge, experience and skill, is the sum of all my near misses.”
As reported this week, I was asked by the RNLI to set up a rescue scenario for them near our island in north Wales. My eldest son, Jesse, 12, has played a part in these training exercises for many years, and this summer was no different. But the story got reported and the reaction illustrates how risk averse our culture has become. For the record, Jesse was wearing a lifejacket, safe at all times, and very happy!
Through it all, I have learnt some key lessons.
First, the world is full of risks and unless we prepare our children for that reality, they will not have the skills to cope when things go wrong. And in life, one thing is certain: no plans survive first contact with the “enemy”. If we are going to strive to reach anywhere meaningful in life then there will be risk aplenty.
When we try to strip our kids’ world of risk we do them a gross disservice. We teach them nothing about handling life. Conversely, when we stand alongside our kids and teach them how to manage risky situations safely, then we empower them with skills that go far beyond just adventure. Coming through a managed element of risk gives kids a confidence and pride that no amount of classroom time ever could. I have seen this happen, with kids and with adults more times than I can remember.
I firmly believe that all children have a right to adventure. They have a right to experience the freedom of the outdoors and the many opportunities it brings. The exhilaration of a mountain summit or the thrill of abseiling into a deep gorge, are experiences that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. Just ask young Scouts up and down the country — I have had the privilege of being Chief Scout since 2009.
These are defining moments of childhood, when kids understand what they’re capable of. These moments allow kids to get excited about the possibilities the world has to offer. They teach independence, initiative, self-reliance and resourcefulness: skills that will serve them for their lives.
None of this, of course, should come at the expense of safety. We all want our kids, and those in our care, to be safe. It is our duty to provide adventure and manage risk in a controlled environment. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater, and deceive ourselves into thinking that removing risk makes our kids “safe”. It doesn’t — especially in the long term.
Every adventure comes with an element of risk. Otherwise it wouldn’t be an adventure. When I am filming in some jungle or desert, or even planning an outdoor adventure with my family, I am constantly assessing the risks and mitigating them wherever possible. It all happens subconsciously now a lot of the time and I never take it for granted. We must never get complacent. And I always have a back up plan. Even on mini adventures with our three young boys (Jesse, Marmaduke, nine, and Huckleberry, six).
Being vigilant and managing risk is not the same as wrapping your kids up in cotton wool. It’s about common sense and being responsible. And if you do this properly, kids won’t even notice. They will be too busy getting stuck into the sailing, the rafting, the pot-holing or whatever activity they are trying. And if you want proof that kids enjoy these things, just look at the smiles on their faces. It tells you everything about their sense of accomplishment, their self-worth. These are times when they prove to themselves that if they are tough enough to get through this, they can get through anything.
I believe it is fundamentally unfair to put children in a holding pen until they are 18. That’s why I am a strong believer in providing opportunities for young people, early on, to enjoy adventure.
As a child, my father often used to take me climbing on the small sea cliffs in the Isle of Wight. For me it was such a powerful connection with him and the natural world. Eventually it led me to the summit of Mount Everest and many expeditions all over the world since, from the Arctic to the Antarctic. But without that gentle, wise, responsible guiding from my dad, I might never have got there. And aged eight, those little “cliffs” felt like we were tackling the most dangerous faces on Earth!
We never accomplish anything by staying indoors experiencing the outside world through a pane of glass or screen. That’s why I remain defiantly determined to provide my own children with opportunities to discover the world, as well as their own natural talents. And I am determined to stand beside them on that journey. And yes, it is going to be dangerous.