Dad Notes: The Safety Police

Cowboys & Indians

The author as a politically incorrect child, apparently unable to choose a side.

I read an interesting article at the gym last weekend that resonated with me. Both the artist and the dad part of me liked it, mostly. My wife can tell you that for years I have railed against “the Safety Police.”

I don’t know exactly who the Safety Police are, but apparently they hold positions of influence, because pretty much every playground in America is now coated in rubber, and padded underneath.

The article was about fostering creativity, courage, self-confidence, and problem-solving skills in kids. Hanna Rosin, the author, contends that the current trend of parents scheduling every minute of their child’s lives with closely supervised activities is robbing them of the chance to explore and take risks in life. (See full article here.)

Her article is centered around a visit with her son to something called an “adventure playground” in Wales. Such playgrounds are designed to encourage a “free and permissive atmosphere” with a minimum of adult supervision from the trained adult staff. The idea is to allow kids to experience a sense of danger and risk, and to learn how to deal with these situations themselves. These playgrounds include an area with moveable elements such as tires and wooden shipping palettes. She describes another area where some kids were starting a fire in a metal drum. Part of the playground runs steeply down into a shallow creek, and includes a rope swing, which may or may not get you across.

Stay with me here. I’m not on a campaign to litter our playgrounds with glass shards. I just think it’s a worthwhile discussion.

Rope Swing

Dangerous…

I think of my own childhood, which included long, unsupervised hours away from my house and my parents, engaged in creative play. Admittedly, some of my activities with young friends were less than brilliant, but that’s kind of the point. We figured it out and lived to tell about it.

Sand Dune Natl Monument

…also dangerous.

I think of my own kids. How often – regularly, in fact – Mollie and I would be outside somewhere and we would hear the words “Hi Mom!” But these words would sound much farther away than they should’ve, especially coming from overhead. We would look skyward to find our second-born son high in a tree, as high as he could possibly go. (Higher than we were comfortable with.) Of course, as soon as his little brother grew old enough, he was right behind his big brother.

There’s no question that there was very real risk there. But it never seemed quite right to me to tell them, “YOU KIDS GET DOWN FROM THAT TREE RIGHT NOW!” even though Mollie and I wondered out loud to each other if all of our children would make it to adulthood. I guess I’m still not sure whether or not we should’ve forbidden extreme tree climbing. I do remember instructing them to make sure that they always had a firm grip on a strong branch so that they wouldn’t fall.

At one point in our downstairs bathroom, the bathtub contained one turtle, two large toads, and several garter snakes, all found in and around our inner-city yard. (The kids thought it was great that these animals couldn’t escape the tub. Eventually we released them when the bathroom started stinking.) None of these animals were dangerous, but I suppose it still seemed exciting to the kids since a certain percentage of the population is either freaked-out or grossed-out by such creatures. We did instruct the kids to always wash their hands after handling the reptiles because there is a real risk of contracting disease from the salmonella bacteria carried by reptiles.

Rosin quotes early childhood education professor, Ellen Sandseter. She has concluded that children have a sensory need to experience (perceived) danger and excitement. Sandseter has identified 6 categories of risky play, including exploring heights, and exploring on one’s own.

I have to think this must be true of a lot of kids, based on what I’ve seen in myself, in my own kids, in conversation with others, and in watching other families. And I don’t see any reason to ascribe this “need” to our sin nature.

Rosin also cites the research of Kyung-Hee Kim, an educational psychologist who has found that over the past decade American children have become:
“less emotionally expressive, less energetic, less talkative and verbally expressive, less humorous, less imaginative, less unconventional, less lively and passionate, less perceptive, less apt to connect seemingly irrelevant things, less synthesizing, and less likely to see things from a different angle.” The largest drop has been in the measure of “elaboration,” or the ability to take an idea and expand on it in a novel way. Practicing psychologists have also written about the unique identity crisis that this generation faces—a fear of growing up and, in the words of Brooke Donatone, a New York City–based therapist, an inability “to think for themselves.”

Given the context of the article, it seems that Rosin thinks over-protective parenting is the culprit.

What do you think? Are our children over-protected? How do/did you as a parent strike a balance between safety and controlled risk with you kids? How do you avoid being a “helicopter parent”?

At the recent release of my new kids’ book, THE COCKY ROOSTER, I described its underlying theme as “the need for young children to submit to their parent’s loving authority in a broken and sometimes dangerous world.” In my opinion, it is essential for loving parental authority to be in play first before we can responsibly allow our young kids the freedom to explore, and to have their own “lion and bear experiences.” Such experiences will prepare them to go out and face giants someday. But risk is always part of the picture. Even as adults, living a life in submission to God-given authority, and to God Himself, does not equate to a life free of risk. Being under right authority helps us to discern the difference between foolish and worthwhile risks (Prov 10:23.)

I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences…

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
– C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

Long's Peak Summit

My daughter, Sierra, on the summit of Long’s Peak, elevation 14,259 ft.

(Sign up on my KIDS’ BOOK WEBSITE and I’ll send you my free ebooklet on the crucial role of stories in parenting and culture.
I’ll also notify you of my original, new kid’s book releases!)

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4 comments on “Dad Notes: The Safety Police

  1. Wayne Talbot says:

    In my 70th year and still an active motorcyclist and relatively adventurous, I credit my current outlook to my childhood. I climbed trees, jumped off roofs, scaled walls, got trapped in a railway tunnel, made my own raft to challenge the floods, climbed down drain pipes and wandered underground, ventured into abandoned coal mines, swam in creeks and dams, fished off rocks, delivered papers from the running board of a car, scoured the suburbs during bob-a-job week, wandered alone for hours at a time, and did all manner of things entirely unsupervised. At the time, this behavior did not seem unusual or abnormal – I thought that everyone behaved like that.
    Apparently not the case today and being who I have become through that freedom afforded before the safetycrats took over our world, I’m sure glad that I grew up when I did.
    Would I want to be young again? No way, for what could I experience to match what I have in the past?

  2. Mark James says:

    This is a theme that I talk about a lot. Society, in the name of making everything safe and painless has interrupted an important process to growing and maturing into adults. Often, it is beneficial to experience the consequences of our actions. I have also noted the trend of making everybody equal so that the kid that demonstrates hard work, determination, and skill is placed on the same footing as a kid that simply woke up and got out of bed. In other words, the reward is the same regardless. All this produces narcissism and ultimately delays maturity.

    As for me… I was a totally feral child wandering the desert of Arizona from morning til night. We roamed around all day exploring old mines, climbing small mountains (Camel Back), scouring the desert for cast off junk, and collecting reptiles. Later, moving to Pasadena, California, I continued to range around, pushing the envelope, and getting into a lot of trouble. I don’t encourage the path of causing trouble, but let’s just say that the things I was doing with homemade gunpowder would get me locked up for a long time in today’s world. In those days you could go to the local pharmacy and get things like potassium nitrate and sulfur off the shelf.

    I like the idea of having a playground with an element of risk. Life is full of risk and learning to manage and experience it helps us in the long run. And that extends to allowing children to deal with their emotions and disappointments. Not everything comes with a Smiley Face.

    • Thanks for sharing Mark.
      It is an interesting discussion. I wouldn’t advocate that parents take a totally hands-off approach, because kids do need guidance, but I’ve watched a lot of parents be unwilling to even let their kids experience the (reasonable) consequences of their choices.

      I don’t know if you clicked on the link to Rosin’s article, but a lot of what she says supports what you say. For instance she mentions a school in New Zealand that rescinded the playground rules, (no climbing trees, no jumping off swings, etc,) and instead of chaos, they found that the incidence of bullying went down. Maybe bullying has partly to do with certain kids being bored at school. It’s also noteworthy that the adventure playgrounds do have staff on hand to intervene if a kid is engaging in seriously stupid or harmful behavior, but they try to intervene as little as possible.

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