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Page last updated at 12:23 GMT, Friday, 6 February 2009

The etiquette of snowball fights

Snowball fight

With swathes of Britain covered in snow this week innocent folk have found themselves the unwitting targets of snowball attacks launched by grinning children. But how to react, asks Brendan O'Neill?

Snowball fights are breaking out everywhere. Some children, who have never seen so many inches of snowfall before, are enjoying the age-old, mischievous pastime of pelting one another with hand-rolled balls of slush for the first time.

Adults are joining in, too. The London bus drivers who found themselves with idle hands on Monday indulged in some snow fighting instead, while David Cameron got in on the act - hurling snowballs at his education spokesman Michael Gove.

David Cameron
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But not everyone is happy with the storm of snow-throwing. Where in the past - as epitomised in those nostalgia-tinged tomes The Dangerous Book for Boys and The Daring Book for Girls - snow fighting seemed to be accepted as a normal part of life in a week-long winter wonderland, today there seems to be confusion, even green shoots of anger, over certain kinds of snowy activity.

The Daily Mirror reports that snowball fights have sparked an "avalanche" of 999 calls. Around one in seven of the calls made to police control rooms at the height of the snowy weather were about snowballs hitting people, private property or moving vehicles. On Monday, Cambridgeshire police received 121 about youths chucking snow.

"It shows how times have changed," said an officer.

When police in Hertfordshire warned children that throwing snowballs in an "irresponsible way" could face arrest or a fine, they were branded "winter killjoys". Yet one man certainly struggled to see the funny side after his van was pelted by a snow-wielding gang of children near Alexandra Palace in London. He pulled out a Stanley knife to frighten his woolly-gloved assailants away.

So what is the proper snowballing etiquette? Is it acceptable for children to lob snowballs at adults, including perfect strangers? And should the chucking of a snowball ever become a police matter?

Night of misrule

Simon Fanshawe, writer, broadcaster and author of The Done Thing: Negotiating the Minefield of Modern Manners, says those complaining to authority about being hit by a snowball are missing the point.

Giant snowball
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Snowstorms, he says, turn society's "normal structure of authority" on its head, allowing kids to mock and embarrass adults in a way that they would never normally do.

"Manners are all about context. They are not about set rules that must always be followed. Etiquette changes depending on where you are and who you are with."

And the wonderful thing about heavy snow, says Fanshawe, is that it creates a "situation like Twelfth Night". "Twelfth Night is all about the 'night of misrule', where the servants become the masters and the masters become the servants. When snow covers Britain, something similar happens: children who would normally avoid even speaking to adults suddenly feel it is okay to throw projectiles at us.

"Snow temporarily undermines the normal structure of authority, which means it is perfectly acceptable for children to throw snowballs at strangers."

If a child were to throw something like a shoe or pencil case at a passing man or woman on a normal, non-snowy Monday morning, that would be bad manners, says Fanshawe, since it would "disrupt normal activity". But when it snows heavily, "normal activity" is disrupted anyway, and the "rules change".

What is it about snow that alters the "structures of authority"?

Lob one back?

"Well, for a start, public space becomes extremely malleable", says Fanshawe. "The distinction between road and pavement becomes less clear. Trees look less like trees and more like decorations. And school is out. Some adults don't go to work. Normality is turned on its head - and children can sense that."

Kids can smell weakness, uncertainty, and other behaviour that is not 'adult-like'
Stuart Waiton

Fanshawe was hit by a snowball while out jogging this week. He responded by throwing one back.

Kate McNab, a criminal solicitor in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, says that snowball-throwing could, strictly speaking, count as a form of common assault, which is when someone causes someone else to "fear or apprehend" that unlawful violence will be used against them.

"Common assault can be carried out intentionally or recklessly, which could also be the definition of hitting someone with a snowball", she says.

However, most snowball-throwing is not malicious in intent - "the intent is to have fun", says McNab - and therefore it is unlikely that many people will make a serious legal complaint.

"The real problem arises when snow is thrown at fast-moving cars. That can be dangerous."

Judi James, a leading expert in body language and social behaviour, agrees that snowballing is a fun, rule-thwarting activity - but she says it also exposes adults' underlying uncertainty today about what is an acceptable way to relate to children.

Where's the dignity?

"Children have always thrown snowballs at adults. In the past they tried to knock off gentlemen's top hats with snowballs.

Just when you thought you'd covered all eventualities... attack by macaque

"And back then, there was that wonderful adult response of shaking your fist at a child while also smiling - a response that expressed both adult authority and a recognition that children will be children. It wasn't a menacing response."

Today, however, adults feel they are caught in a Catch 22, says James.

"We sometimes don't know how to respond to something like a snowball. Some adults feel it demeans their dignity and compromises their status. All their pent-up anger, all the times their boss has had a go at them, can be unwittingly released when they are hit on the head by a snowball. But if you respond too pompously, you're likely to be hit by 20 more.

"And in our era of the nanny state, if you decide to join in the fun and throw a snowball back at the children, and it happens to contain a stone or too much ice, will you get into trouble?"

The new tortured debate about snow fighting shows how "adult authority and responses have changed" in recent years, says James.

Stuart Waiton of the Scottish youth charity Generation says the important thing for adults is - no pun intended - to keep their cool. "Kids can smell weakness, uncertainty, and other behaviour that is not 'adult-like'.

"And any adult who gets involved in a snowball fight must be aware that this means he is now entering their world - and you will therefore no longer be in control."

Below is a selection of your comments.

There are only two acceptable responses to being hit with a snowball. You either ignore it and carry on regardless or fire one back. Anyone whinging about being hit is a boring bugger!

Firstly complete a risk assessment form (preferably in triplicate) and submit it to the Health and Safety department of your local council. Deal with their response (typically with questions such as - age of snow, whether it was fresh or had been previously used as a snow ball, size and capacity, age of persons at whom it will be thrown, whether the recipients had received parental permission to participate in a snowball fight, together with an indemnity form). After three months you will receive a certificate for permission to throw a snowball or balls strictly in accordance with the terms and conditions outlined on the form and as soon as the appropriate licence fee has been paid for and received. In order to ensure the certificate arrives in time it's best to submit it three months in advance and establish a hotline for permission to vary. Then you will be able to throw the snowball back.
P Thomas, St Helens

I was interested to read about what would happen if the snowball contained a small stone. In the mid 60s, when I was at junior school in Bedford, our headmaster banned us from having snowball fights in the playground. He had been blinded in one eye as a child through just such an incident.
Kevin, Douglas, Isle of Man

I had my side window broken by a snowball while driving at 40mph down a dual carriageway yesterday. Frankly I'm not amused and if I'd been a more nervous driver the BANG when it hit could have made me crash. Given the strength of car windows it must have contained a rock, not frozen water.
Peter, Nottingham

Snowballing cars is out of order and I have hauled a bunch of kids over the coals for it previously. However when just out and about, within reason - go for it. I had a dad hiding behind me as I walked the dog last night, I pleaded the Geneva Convention & ducked - his kids got him soon after. I consider myself to have got off lightly this year as I've not been had... yet.
Lisa Ford, Broseley, Shropshire

The van at Alexandra Palace was surrounded by dozens of bullying thugs aged 16, 17, 18 - hardly children. They refused to let him pass and smashed his windows. Not exactly spiffing high jinks.
Granny Smythe, London

Snowball fights are fun when children play amongst themselves or with adults they know. However, it is not funny when thrown at a moving car - some kids threw snowballs at my daughter's car and she braked and skidded. Luckily there were no cars close by so no accident, but she was quite shaken by her experience.
G Mahmood, London

Being hit by a snowball as your walking along is an expected part of winter. But common sense should come into play with multiple hits. But at NO TIME is it at all acceptable throwing snowballs at a vehicle. It is hard enough concentrating driving through snowy and icy conditions, a sudden thump as a snowball hits your window can break that and then who knows what could happen. Who is responsible if the car goes out of control and mounts the kerb?
Andre, Newcastle

I had half a dozen teenagers throwing snowballs at me yesterday. It was great to feel young again as I threw a few back and gave them some friendly banter. Disappointed that a passing parent of one of them didn't join me as eight against one is hardly fair.
Mitchell Adcow, Pentyrch

I haven't met a single miserable person this week; what a pleasant change. We live along the towpath by the Basingstoke canal and have spent most of the week pelting walkers over the other side of the canal with snowballs; this has been met with much joviality and has led to some fab snowball fights. It's all meant in fun and has been received in the same way. Excellent fun.
J Moore, Woking, Surrey

I grew up in Canada with plenty of snowballs - nasty when they get down your neck! The correct behaviour is to throw snowballs at your friends and family and other school children, but not strangers.
Persephone Booth, Kettleburgh, Suffolk

Nice soft snowballs= FUN
Hard squashed balls of ice = DANGEROUS
Cynthia Mays, Fareham, Hants

I was hit by a snowball one year that left me with a severe black eye as it had been packed into ice before being thrown. Another inch higher and it could have killed me. The black eye took some explaining at school when the teachers thought I was being maltreated at home.
Karen, Coulsdon, Surrey

I'm 28 and was over in the Regent's Park and saw a load of kids with snowballs in the distance. Sensing an ambush I armed myself - only to then get one in the face by some 30ish chap, albeit quite lightly thrown. My natural reaction was to launch one at full pace at his back. It hit him and hard. I felt slight bad afterwards, but one can't really blame their instincts. Plus, he started it.
Andrew, London

Kids are likely to be having fun in the snow, what with all the schools being shut. I understand if children were to throw snowballs at an elderly person then it would be out of order but then again if they are aimed at people their own age then they're just looking at having more fun. Let them have fun, it's not often we get snow like this.
Katie, Hampshire

Snowballing may be considered fine in the most part and a merry jape, but when the snowballers target drivers already struggling with treacherous driving conditions, collisions can follow - sometimes with serious results. This is particularly dangerous and invasive when the snowballers build barricades across the roadway to slow drivers down further so they can open the car doors to pelt them inside their own vehicles. Similarly when the snowball contains fragments of stone or glass, the fun element is completely removed, and what else is it but an assault or criminal damage?
Jonny, Northern Ireland

I reckon you should get stuck in and have some fun. A snowball narrowly missed my head on the way to the station on Monday - it was a couple of kids so I threw a few back. Moments later, their mates turned up, swelling their number to about 10. "Get him!" said someone. I managed to get a couple of direct hits before going down in a blaze of glory and snow, much to the amusement of the station staff.
Chris, London, UK

I disagree that it is acceptable to throw snowballs at strangers as suggested in your article. I do agree that enjoying the snow is an age-old part of life whether you be a child or an adult. As with everything there are limits. In my case one or two snowballs thrown at your house windows can be laughed off. When it turns into 15 or 20 as a concerted attack, it crosses the line of acceptability.
Richard Harradine, Kilmarnock

Have people actually lost their sense of humour or their ability to enjoy life any more? Monday's snow fall presented an opportunity to behave like a child again and throw snowballs or build snowmen (or snow rabbits as I found in a park in Surbiton). In the current climate of economic recession, every opportunity to have a laugh is a bonus. Lighten up everyone.
Kate Poulton, Surbiton

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