Christina Patterson: Why we can't resist a little dice with death

They need a ‘gap year’ because they’ve barely been allowed past their front door

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There are certain oppressed minorities that most of us don't rush to defend and among them, it has to be said, are the Royal Family. Charles: I'm sorry, but ghastly.

Whiney, pompous eco-warrior, the kind of man, you can't help thinking, more likely to weep over a soggy fried egg than the slow frying of the planet. Andrew: wannabe action-man-playboy and now self-appointed "business ambassador", whose tax-funded jaunts to tell the world how to make money (short answer: be the son of one of the richest women in the world) are such appalling value that reports about them have to be suppressed. Edward: oh, dear, Edward. You almost don't want to go there. Only Anne seems quite a good sport. But that, presumably, is because she keeps her mouth shut.

Edward – poor, dopey, I-want-to-have-a-nice-career-in-telly-but-unfortunately-it-didn't-go-well Edward – has just opened his, in Australia, and it hasn't gone down well. One of the chief attractions of the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme, he said in an interview this week, was that – well, that you could die. Never mind all that stuff about visiting old ladies, or serving in the community, or going on nice, healthy walks, he implied, the real USP was that you were dicing with death.

All hell has broken loose. The prince who isn't Einstein has been branded "insensitive" and "crass". And the word "gaffe", traditionally reserved for public outings from the Queen's consort, has been ceremonially handed from father to son. The context, it's true, wasn't ideal. Edward had been asked about the death, three years ago in the Australian bush, of a 17-year-old participant in the scheme. He responded by explaining how the death of a British boy, early on in the programme, had led to an increase in the numbers taking part. The reputation of the award among young people, he said, had soared to "Wow, this is serious".

He is, of course, right. I'll say that again. Prince Edward is right. If you want adventure, of course there has to be a risk of some kind. (If you don't, join a knitting circle.) The Duke of Edinburgh Awards scheme – along with tourist revenue, Hampton Court and some quite good TV programmes (made about, and not by, its members) – is one of the better things to come out of the British monarchy. It has helped thousands of young people to achieve things they would never have dreamt of. It has taught them, in an age of instant gratification, about the value of stamina and commitment. And, yes, it has given them adventures. Real adventures. Adventures that can, in extreme and terrible circumstances, lead to death.

It's not hard to see why young people today need something called a "gap year". (Actually, the way things are looking, they might end up with a gap life, but let's at least try to write one piece without mentioning the economy.) They need a year to run wild, in Brazil, or Goa, or Nicaragua, because they've barely been allowed past their front door. After 18 years of being marshalled from Baby T'ai Chi to violin and then to Ella's for some lovely gluten-free muffins, they can barely wipe their own bottoms. They're great at Google Earth – great at anything, in fact, that involves digits, a screen and a keyboard – but getting around is something that involves a car, a satnav and a dad. Drop them in a desert and they'd probably try surfing. "These boots are made for walking"? What's that?

For those of us who grew up with the model of childcare that involved the words "fresh air" and the tacit assumption that grown-ups were things you didn't disturb unless absolutely necessary, this is a bit of a shock. My own experience of Girl Guides was limited to a badge in flower arranging and a camp where I learnt to make a washing-up stand from lashed-together twigs, but then my favourite play area, when I was a toddler, was the building site next to our street. There's nothing like the sudden absence of a floor to make ging-gang-goolies by the campfire seem boring.

Children seek danger. Adults seek danger. Humans seek danger. Of course they do. Why do people ride motorbikes? Why do they ski? Why do they climb mountains? Why do presidents have affairs with interns? Why do ugly men drive fast cars? Why does anyone go to war, ever? Sure, some people fight for Queen and country, some might even one day fight for her silly eldest son and country, some people fight because it's the law and they have to, but many, many young men go to war because they want to test themselves, because they want the thrill. Humans seek danger because they want to feel alive.

You can do a bungee jump, if you want to, you can pay to be in a fast boat, or a fast car, or a white water raft, or a balloon, but surely it's better that you actually learn that there are certain situations in life when an escape, or a snack, or a drink, or an answer, isn't instantly at hand, and that when you start a journey, you have to finish it, and that if you want to finish it, you'd better do it well. And that sometimes, just sometimes, but you need to know this, you need to remember this, the stakes are as high as you can get.

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