For me, “Swallows and Amazons” is the greatest children’s adventure novel of all time. But this is not exactly a review: it’s more about how our present generation of children has had their freedom and lives stolen from them by society’s excessive fears for their safety. Swallows and Amazons is all about trusting young children to take sensible calculated risks – risks that children today are denied.
“Better drowned than duffers if not duffers won’t drown.”
So reads the telegram that the Walker children have been waiting for, in Arthur Ransome’s 1930 children’s novel “Swallows and Amazons”. It’s the tale of the perfect summer holiday; a summer the children spend sailing a small dinghy on ‘the lake’ in the English Lake District, camping on ‘Wild Cat Island’.
That telegram is from their father, and it is a mark of trust. A trust that his children are not ‘duffers’. That his children can be trusted to act sensibly and to take responsibility for their own actions. Alone; without adults to tell them what to do or how to do it. Adults exist in this book, but they are peripheral. The children are the active agents: they are the ones calling the shots and making the decisions.
If I can think of one novel that has influenced me more than any other it is Swallows and Amazons. It is a book I come back to, a book that bears repeated reading, a book that defines both me and how I view the world. When I say ‘one novel’, I don’t mean ‘one children’s novel’. I mean ‘one novel, period’. This is the book.
It has profoundly affected my life – I’ve not done everything that happens in the book myself, but I’ve done a thousand similar things both as a child and as an adult that I attribute directly to the effect of this book. I’ve camped in the wild as a child, I’ve fished for my dinner, and aged 10 I was sailing high-performance racing dinghies.
A little later I was doing serious rock-climbing and abseiling. And then surfing the massive waves of SW Australia. I’ve kayaked in shark-infested waters (you haven’t lived until a shark longer than your kayak cruises slowly past and ignores you completely!) And I’ve lain on my back in the remote deserts of Australia and marvelled at the glories of the night sky.
And I’ve done them all safely and responsibly, and I seriously doubt I would have done any of them without Swallows and Amazons, simply because the book tells children “you can do exciting stuff – so long as you are sensible about how you do it”. And I took that message to heart, and it changed my life.
I read it first when I was 5. I was a precocious reader – I suspect it is meant for what we now call ‘tweens’, and intelligent tweens at that. When my Grade One teacher realised I was unchallenged by “Janet and John” and “Dick and Dora” she suggested I should bring my own books to school. I remain forever grateful to her: the first book I brought was Swallows and Amazons.
So, what happens in Swallows and Amazons? Well: not much. The children sail ‘Swallow’. They camp on Wild Cat Island, doing all their own cooking. They catch fish to eat; they build camp fires to cook; they use knives and hatchets and tools. They even construct a lighthouse in a pine tree that requires considerable climbing skill to reach the first branches many metres above the ground.
These children are competent – but not exceptionally so. They also make mistakes, just as all children do.
What else happens? They meet Nancy and Peggy, the Amazon Pirates, and have a most satisfactory “war”, first with the Amazons , and then later with ‘Captain Flint’, Nancy and Peggy’s uncle, who wrongly accuses the Walker children of stealing something from his houseboat. The Walker children find the stolen ‘treasure’. I won’t tell you what that treasure is – I don’t want to spoil your pleasure. Read it and find out for yourselves.
Why am I writing about this? Because this book defines how much we have lost; how much has changed in the lives of our children.
The four children’s ages are not stated, but it seems reasonable to believe that they are between 7 and 13 years old. The youngest, Roger, cannot swim. Yet his parents trust his older brother, John, to take him sailing on a large lake in a small dinghy.
Because that is the core of this book. It’s about trust. Trusting children to act sensibly and responsibly, even in the absence of direct parental supervision.
When Swallows and Amazons was published it took the children’s publishing world by storm. It was the biggest selling children’s novel of its time. Think “Harry Potter” and you won’t be far wrong. It sold hundreds of thousands of copies and it is still in print. If you were a child in the 1930s (or, at least, an English middle class child) you read Ransome. You loved Ransome. Because Ransome was writing your life.
‘Swallows and Amazons’ was widely reviewed at the time of publication; and if you read those reviews the one thing you won’t find is anyone suggesting that this was not a realistic representation of a middle class child’s holiday.
Not one reviewer says, “Hang on a moment: this isn’t real! No child would REALLY be allowed to do this by their parents!”
No; what you find in those reviews is:
“the story of their adventures on a little island in the middle of an English lake is thrilling just because it is not fabulous.”
“The only tinge of sadness that crosses my perfect enjoyment (I have read it twice already, by the way) is that born of the fact that I can’t, now, enjoy the thrill open to the younger reader, who will, after reading, proceed to master the craft of sailing and set forth on wondrous and perilous adventures like John and Susan, Titty and Roger.”
“To read of their busy and adventurous days is to envy them their good fortune and their sensible relatives, who had enough imagination and self-control to keep out of the serious business on the island.”
“There comes a time when every child (except the born duffer) wants to cast off, camp out in the woods, own and explore a desert island, prove, that is, some ability to live independently of mama, papa and civilisation. And so this book, which tells a story not beyond the bounds of possibility, manages to get, too, the thrill and zest of romantic adventure.”
“Mr. Ransome has written a really delightful book – a book of open air and fact and fun which fulfils the stirring promise of its title. It contains the lore of sailing and the lore of fishing and the lore of camping. The excitement of discovery and exploration of pirates and warfare makes its pages turn with increasing speed. It is written about real children for real children”
That last sentence bears repeating: “It is written about real children for real children.”
Exactly. This is what real children did in the 1930s. No suggestion that this is unrealistic. This is not some Enid Blyton fantasy. This is what real children did then.
So, why don’t they do it now? If this was possible then, surely it is possible now? If not, why not?
The children are not exceptional. The things they do are not exceptional. Arthur Ransome writes about ordinary things, done by ordinary children. The thing that makes this book exceptional is Ransome’s ability to get inside the minds of the children … to make their simple everyday experiences exciting and interesting, and above all believable.
Are the children insipid paragons of virtue? No. They do some rather unwise things, including a hair-raising episode of night sailing. But they are sensible; they quickly realise their actions could lead to tragic consequences and they tie up for the night to wait for dawn.
And in the end, the story comes to a most satisfactory conclusion. Nobody gets hurt, even when a catastrophic storm destroys their camp in the middle of the night.
I honestly believe that there is no reason why children today should not be doing exactly the same things the Walker children do in Swallows and Amazons. Children have not changed: society has changed, and changed for the worse.
Nowadays the Walker parents might well be charged with child endangerment or worse. Allowing young children to camp and sail unsupervised; to use real tools like sharp knives and hatchets; to build fires and construct pine-tree lighthouses? Surely this is utterly reckless! Surely these children are being subjected to the most unreasonable dangers!
They meet and talk to complete strangers, like charcoal burners, and even enter their hut so they can see the pet adder kept by one of the burners! Think of the “stranger danger” rhetoric that is constantly being foisted on us by the media. Isn’t this evidence of an appalling abrogation of a parent’s duty of care?
Well, in my view: NO. The things that the children do, and the actions the parents take are entirely reasonable. The parents trust their children, and the children prove over and over again that that trust is warranted. Yes, the children take some risks, but they prove that they are quite capable of assessing those risks and acting appropriately.
And I honestly and sincerely believe that if parents of today gave their children the same level of trust, then the vast majority of today’s children could do exactly the same as the Walker children and with exactly the same results. The parents’ trust would be rewarded and the children would act equally responsibly.
Children today are desperate for trust; they long for responsibility; they sincerely desire to do the right thing. But we as a society won’t let them. And both society and the children are the losers for it.
When we don’t trust children they don’t learn how to take responsibility and they suffer real and measurable harm because of it. [PDF 233KB]
When we don’t give children reasonable freedom they take freedom in unreasonable and unsafe ways. When we protect children from all possibility of harm (however minor) we ensure they will suffer greater harm because they don’t know how to assess real hazards. [PDF, 31KB]
When we don’t teach young children how to safely use simple everyday tools, like fire, knives, saws, hatchets and drills they run the risk of serious injury because they will make serious mistakes in their use – and use them they will, if not when young, when older.
When we tell children that all strangers are dangerous we get tragic consequences. Many children have come to harm – sometimes fatally – because they were too scared to ask strangers for help. In that particular case a seven year old child was lost in a forest and a massive hunt was organised. Fortunately the child was found relatively unharmed – but she was lost for 4 hours, terrified, and “she had heard men yelling for her earlier, but was scared to approach them.” Note also that the first assumption made was not that she was lost, but that she had been abducted, and members of the public who wanted to help search for the child were refused permission by the authorities. This is madness.
And no, this is not an isolated incident: here’s one far more serious. Brennan Hawkins, 11, spent FOUR days lost in the Utah Mountains. “Brennan told us he thought that he was going to die three times, and he said a prayer asking God for directions. His biggest fear was being abducted, so when he spotted rescuers on horseback, he stayed hidden.” Brennan is lucky to be alive, and the most likely reason he would have died is because he had been taught to fear abduction above all else. Again, this is madness.
Stranger danger exists but abduction by strangers is a very rare crime. The vast majority of strangers are of no danger to any child. The sensible response is not to teach children to fear all strangers. It is to teach them effective protective behaviours, starting with the people most likely to be dangerous to them. Not strangers, but family members and people known to them and their families.
Findings from the ABS Personal Safety Survey (2005) indicated that for participants who had experienced sexual abuse before the age of 15 … 13.5% identified that the abuse came from their father/stepfather, 30.2% was perpetrated by other male relative, 16.9% by family friend, 15.6% by acquaintance/neighbour and 15.3% by other known person … 10.7% of child sexual abuse incidents were found to be perpetrated by females. McCloskey and Raphael (2005) argued that female perpetrators of child sexual abuse could be much higher as many cases go under-reported. (ABS, 2005).
And we must teach children that when they are lost, injured or in distress they should ask strangers for help. To teach them otherwise is to expose them to real danger, danger far more likely to cause them real harm, possibly fatal harm, than the minuscule danger posed by strangers.
Other children have died because strangers were too afraid of false accusations to help the child in distress. This was not a case of a rare and heartless person – an exception: nearly 50% of men and 30% of women in a recent study said they would be too scared to help a child in distress because they feared being falsely accused of child abduction.
I could go on, but I hope I’ve made my point. Our children’s childhoods have been stolen from them by unreasonable fears for their safety. I fervently hope that this will change and that society will come to its collective senses. That young children will once again be able to experience the sort of joyous adventures that the Walker children experience in Swallows and Amazons.
I hope that children will be allowed and encouraged to take responsibility for themselves. That they will again be given the freedom to roam their neighbourhoods. That parks will be full of children playing together without the ever-present spectre of the helicopter parent.
That children will walk to school or ride their bikes. That kids will have pocket knives and know how to use them. That they will know how to build a safe fire and cook their own food on it. That they can go camping alone on their local equivalent of Wild Cat Island.
And that parents will be able to say: “My kid’s head is screwed on right! The one thing I’m sure of is I can trust my kid to do the right thing, because my kid knows how to look after him/herself.”
It can happen. And I’m an optimist – I sincerely believe it will happen. Society has swung so far in one insane direction that the only possible place for it to go now is back to where it ought to be – a world where we trust children and give them the freedom and responsibility that they so desperately need.
I would like to thank three people, without whom this blog post would not have been possible.
The first is Lenore Skenazy, writer of the fabulous Free Range Kids site and blog, from which I have drawn many of the references and information used in the latter part of the post.
The other is Tim Gill, writer of the equally fabulous Rethinking Childhood blog and the book ‘No Fear’. Without Tim’s ideas and inspiration I could never have written this post.
The third is Aunt Annie, of the Aunt Annie’s Childcare blog. Annie gave me valuable criticism and suggestions that helped me get this post back on track when I had lost my way.
My profound thanks go to all three. Alec.