Look Before You Leap

27 February 2013

In 2012 Australia witnessed multiple efforts to eradicate the supposedly harmful trials and tribulations of childhood. A Victorian primary school temporarily banned physical contact between its students, including high-fives and hugs. Later in the year, a primary school in Sydney forbade its students from performing handstands or cartwheels in the playground, unless under the direct supervision of a gymnastics instructor.

It seems that when it comes to child-rearing today, it is better to be safe than sorry. The notion of “sink or swim” is vanquished. Forget it. Don’t even get in the water. Even expressions encouraging a more cautious approach, such as “look before you leap”, appear too negligent in their regard for modern risk management practices. In fact, I fail to summon a single cliché inclusive enough to serve as a guiding compass for the knotty art of raising children.

But are overly protective, elaborately phrased rules not merely constraining behaviours, but also obscuring the compact morality tales and shrewd wordplay couched within snappy idioms? I fear they are. And I will not abide bureaucrats red-taping phraseology! However, if there’s one thing thatSophie’s Choice has taught me, it’s that sometimes you have to compromise. So let’s get compromising.

Mum has always called me a “born problem-solver”. This is despite my propensity for “acting like a little ADD shitbox man-rat” (still Mum). So in an effort to placate the neurotic Helen Lovejoys of Australia, may I suggest a more comprehensive bullet point idiom? One that retains the core sentiment of ‘look before you leap’, but which extends its capacity for mitigating harm to children:

1. Look
2. Look again
3. Look again again
4. Have your parents appoint an independent panel to review your previous looks
5. Don helmet, pads, floaties etc. and step gingerly into the unknown

This 6-point plan is plainly less pithy than the original saying, but modern health and safety regulators don’t award points for poetic expression. No, it’s clear to any sensibly dreary and responsibly joyless muggle that bullet point idioms more closely resemble necessarily rigorous OH&S policy, unlike interesting prose, which has no place in the business of child rearing. Ultimately, you have to admit that my revised version, once implemented, will make children less accident-prone and leave parents and others with a duty of care less open to litigation.

Here I am being facetious… obviously. But not simply for the reason you might think. Yes, I do believe fencing the experience of childhood within insipid policies inhibits physical experience and maturation. But it also stunts the growth of verbal and written communication by restricting the shared emotional experiences born of those physical activities—experiences that engender excited talk about ‘WTF just happened?!’ and lead kids to find new ways of expressing what they’d achieved (or perhaps failed to achieve). Such blandly styled policies thoroughly eviscerate the bowels of passion and creativity, spilling foetal metaphors, alliterations and rhymes onto the killing room floor (eww, right? But it’s only because at 14 I snapped my tibia skateboarding that I can conjure such disgusting symbolism).

A lot of you might question the validity of my argument given it largely attributes a healthy childhood to experimentation with alliteration and rhyme. But let’s not forget, without these linguistic devices Dr Seuss (the best babysitter/surrogate parent a child could want) would simply be an unpublished nobody with a fake medical degree.

My inner behatted cat aches for the toddler bereft of One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish—perhaps instead persuaded to absorb the learnings of the Fair Work Ombudsman’s annual report—and the cultural impoverishment she would endure. And while Doc S. may not be able to set a fractured arm (again, he’s not a real doctor) he can cure an acute case of the boreds quick as your dad can say “green eggs and ham”.

What’s that? “You can still nurture a child’s imagination by adorning pragmatic legislation with artistic rhymes!”, I hear you retort. Well, guess what: there’s not a single evocative word in the legalese lexicon that rhymes with Horton. Not even accounting for some semi-related proper nouns, like Shorten (of the Honorable Bill fame). Horton Hears Bill Shorten? I don’t think so.

In the interest of full disclosure I should note that my only claim to expert knowledge in this area is that I was once a child myself. Of course, many of us were, with the exception of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character in The Terminator, the Terminator. Benjamin Button is also an anomaly in that he completed most of his trial-and-error learning as an octogenarian. Button’s curious case thusly compels me to wonder whether we should also let old people do cartwheels, hug one another and read Dr Seuss. I think we should. In fact, let’s ALL do cartwheels, read Dr Seuss and then have a big platonic hug—if only to cram it up the wowsers.

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