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Kids Safety. Or is it?

The recent media blitz about The Dangerous Book for Boys has triggered a number of interesting discussions with other parents. It turns out that almost all of the parents that I talk to agree that our current Fear and Terror on the behalf of our children is viewed as stifling, ridiculous, and pretty much a waste of time. Is the world really that much more dangerous now than it was 30 or 40 (or dare I say it 50) years ago? Turns out that most people don’t think so. They think that the perception is that our kids are more at risk now than we were when we were kids.

            Think about it. How common was a skinned knee when you were a kid? Scabs on knees and elbows were considered a standard part of being a kid. There are many kids in the second grade classroom I work in who have never had a scrape that a band-aid couldn’t cover. Stitches? Unthinkable. A broken bone? Not unless you want the local Child Protection Agency knocking on your door. Think about the things you did as a kid. Would you let your kids do them today? Here are some examples from my youth.

  • Walk to school. A whole 5 blocks or so – 4 times a day – to school in the morning, home again for lunch, back to school for the afternoon, then back home. Oh yeah, and after the first few trips in the first grade, we did it alone.
  • Bicycles, skateboards, roller skates, sleds, toboggans, etc. Without helmets, pads, or any safety equipment except maybe a reflector (if it hasn’t been smashed in a crash). On the street. Oh yeah: we did have some common sense. Like to move off the street when a car was coming.
  • Climbing trees. As far up as the branches would hold you.
  • Tools. I had complete access to my dads shop. I built everything from bows and arrows to go-karts to forts and tree houses. Mostly from found materials. Without supervision.

The list goes on and on. And I’m not even including controversial things like guns (BB or otherwise), dirt bikes, fireworks (often home made) and the myriad of other things that would probably get a kid arrested today. Were all of these things completely safe and without risk? Of course not. My friends and I had our share of stitches, scrapes, and broken bones. It was part of being a kid. It also taught us a lot about evaluating risk, and gave us a good education regarding our environment and what the world around us was.

            So is all of this safety making a difference to our kids? It turns out it is, but its not all good. Sure, there are plenty of kids out there that have never had stitches or a trip to the ER. These aren’t bad things. The problem is, the same kids are completely out of touch with how to do *anything*. When was the last time you saw a bunch of kids working together to build a fort or tree house? How ‘bout making a kite? (What do you mean make a kite? That would involve using a dangerous pair of scissors or maybe a saw or knife. We buy our kites at the store.)

            Remember playing Pirate, or Knight, or whatever, and using a trashcan lid for shield and a hockey stick for sword? At a recent party for one of the kids, we had a knights quest. We made foam swords, and the kids got to have swordfights. Imagine a bunch of 5-12 year olds all running around with foam swords actually hitting each other? They loved it so much, both they and their parents have contacted me and asked to do it again. Kids need to have ways to take risks. This is part of how they learn that there are consequences to their actions. It also lets them know that they have some control over their situation and environment.

Another interesting observation from our little Knights Quest: some of the best behaved kids at the Quest are also some of the kids that present constant problems in the classroom and in structured environments. My personal theory is that kids need a place where they can push their horizons and take risks. When we protect our kids to the point where they have no risk in their lives, they will look for another way to get the adrenaline rush. What could be easier (and more natural) than pushing the limits at school? The risk is there, the danger is there, the possibility of repercussions is there – everything that a “protected kid” is “safe” from. As with most behavior in kids, if you stifle something in one place, it will express itself someplace else. Maybe all that those ADHD and “problem” kids really need is a bit of time outside where they can just play, take risks, and be kids – without mom, dad, or teacher hovering over them making sure they don’t actually do anything fun or risky.

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One Response

  1. This is something I grapple with. We live in a pretty nice neighborhood, and we have a little bit of a yard with some trees in the back. I send my girls off – Punkin’ is ten, Beanie is eight – to play by themselves in the yard and the little strip of woods between our yard and the neighbors’. I don’t go out there with them, I am not in constant contact with them, though I will occasionally go to the back door to see if I can catch a glimpse of movement or hear a snatch of their conversations, just so I know they haven’t been carted off by some psycho or something. I have no idea what they’re doing back there (though I suspect it probably involves fantasies of magicians and faeries, knowing my girls). The point is that they are completely unstructured and unsupervised out there.

    The reason I grapple with it is that I DO worry that they’ll be carted off by some psycho, or that they’ll fall out of a tree or startle an animal that will lunge at them or any NUMBER of other (completely irrational) horror fantasies that every mother can concoct instantly and without even the slightest bit of effort.

    When I was little, I too played outside – for hours and hours and hours – ALONE and completely unsupervised. I survived just fine and I need to relax enough to be sure that my girls will, too (and they have the benefit of each other – one can come to get me if the other goes down for whatever reason. When I was little, I knocked myself unconscious on the swingset and was out long enough for the paramedics to arrive; goodness only knows how long I was out before my mother noticed). The messages we get from society today, though, tell us that we’re being neglectful if we aren’t in constant contact with our kids. It’s a tough line to balance.

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