Every now and again I’ll write a post that really means something to me and I’ll let it sit, completed, in my drafts bin for months, even years. I haven’t quite figured out why. I think it bothers me to post something that I feel so deeply about only to have it soon be buried underneath future posts. But I also can’t stand for this post to sit in my drafts bin any longer…
One of my fellow Childhood Unplugged photographers turned me on to an article published by The Atlantic called, “The Overprotected Kid”. The subtitle states, “A preoccupation with safety has stripped childhood of independence, risk taking, and discovery – without making it safer. A new kind of playground points to a better solution”. The article highlights the transformation of playgrounds in the US from the 1960s and 70s until now, noting that changes were made due to safety concerns without much of a change in the number of injuries that have occurred on a playground between then and now. It speaks to how consumed we, as parents, have become with safety and how driven we have become by fear. This fear has led to very little unsupervised playtime, which the article states can be detrimental to the development of a child. I wouldn’t be writing this if I didn’t agree.
So what is this “new” playground like, you ask? Well it takes up half an acre and consists of things like tires, mattresses, a creek with a faded plastic boat, mud, wood, and other materials that allow the “playground” to transform daily. Contrary to many of the playgrounds we’re used to, “there are no bright colors, or anything else that belongs to the usual playground landscape: no shiny metal slide topped by a red steering wheel or a tic-tac-toe board; no yellow seesaw with a central ballast to make sure no one falls off; no rubber bucket swing for babies. There is, however, a frayed rope swing that carries you over the creek and deposits you on the other side, if you can make it that far (otherwise it deposits you in the creek)”.
Childhood has changed. I was just having a conversation with friends when one admitted that, back in day (she grew up in the 60s-70s) when the cops used to show up to the parties, they’d simply hold their joints under the table and blatantly deny the presence of any drugs or alcohol. And the cops, who could certainly smell the marijuana in the air, would “take their word for it” and move on. In the same conversation, someone else admitted that he was in the car when his group of friends got pulled over for drunk driving (this was also in the 60s-70s). Instead of arresting anyone, the cop asked if anyone in the car was sober and took another kids word for it when one raised his hand and volunteered to drive the rest of the way home. I’m not saying I want my kids to be able to get away with doing drugs, nor do I think cops should turn a blind eye to drunk drivers; my point is only that times have changed and it’s affected the way our children interact with their world. The article states, “Actions that would have been considered paranoid in the ’70’s – walking third-graders to school, forbidding your kid to play ball in the street, going down the slide with your child in your lap – are now routine”. It continues, “When you ask parents why they are more protective than their parents were, they might answer that the world is more dangerous than it was when they were growing up. But this isn’t true, or at least not in the way that we think. For example, parents now routinely tell their children never to talk to strangers, even though all available evidence suggests that children have about the same (very slim) chance of being abducted by a stranger as they did a generation ago. Maybe the real question is, how did these fears come to have such a hold over us? And what have our children lost – and gained – as we’ve succumbed to them?”.
The article goes on to say that somewhere along the line risk became synonymous with hazard and due mostly to fear of lawsuits, playgrounds began to change substantially. And now, they’re all the same. From one playground to the next, you’ll notice that all the slides are at the same heights and angles and many share the same accessories. There are no elements of surprise and whether you’re in California or Kansas, chances are your kid is playing on the same blue and orange painted equipment with rubber pavement as my kids. And if you’re kids are like my kids, the actual equipment itself holds their attention for a whopping 10 minutes or so. After that initial 10 minutes is up, I rely on them interacting with other children (fingers crossed there is someone there for them to play with), the sandbox, or – if they’re lucky – their bike / scooter I brought for them to ride around on. And am I the only one that gets annoyed by the constant signage, “use caution”, “intended for children ages 2-5”, “adult supervision required”, and so on and so forth? It reminds me of a comedy show I saw with Demetri Martin where he does this whole bit about signage and how stupid it is, in general. He talks about driving across a bridge in the summer time that has a sign that reads, “May be icy”. He suggested that instead of concentrating on the negative, signs ought to concentrate on the positive; like, instead, how ’bout it read, “May not be icy”. It translates to mean the same thing, doesn’t it? I digress.
“Two parents sued when their child fell over a stump in a small redwood forest that was part of a playground. They had a basis for the lawsuit. After all, the latest safety handbook advises designers to ‘look out for tripping hazards, like exposed concrete footings, tree stumps, and rocks.’ But adults have come to the mistaken view ‘that children must somehow be sheltered from all risks of injury. In the real world, life is filled with risks – financial, physical, emotional, social – and reasonable risks are essential for children’s healthy development”. It’s as if we’ve taken the trust for our children to properly judge the safety of a situation away. I hate watching my boys in yards where there is a pool, for example. But rather than chase them all over the place, like those guys who tease the bulls with those red flags, I sit back and wait for them to fall in with the reassurance that I will simply jump in after them. I remind myself that a few seconds under water will not kill them. Maybe some people may find me crazy for doing such, but I trust in their ability to know that playing by the water’s edge is not safe. What I don’t trust is their ability to swim and that’s why I sit out there with them, at all times, carefully observing, or “loitering with intent“, as the article calls it. And to this day, neither Hooper nor Van has fallen into the pool while playing around it.
I agree that learning to negotiate risks is an important part of survival. I mean the human race has survived as a whole because of our abilities to defend ourselves, run from danger, and be independent. The article states, “Even today, growing up is a process of managing fears and learning to arrive at sound decisions. By engaging in risky play, children are effectively subjecting themselves to a form of exposure therapy, in which they force themselves to do the thing they’re afraid of in order to overcome their fear”.
Hooper became a bit more daring when he transformed from toddler to kid, but I would describe him as far from reckless. Both boys are terrified of cars in the street or parking lot. When Van hears a car’s engine start in the parking lot, he latches on to my leg. Because the fear is innate in them, when we cross the street or ride bikes I make it a point to educate them about crosswalks or looking both ways but I’m careful to instill more fear and I speak to them in a calm and matter-of-fact voice. I think it’s important to know your children and teach to their individual levels of understanding, or in this case fear.
Even with the introduction of the safety handbook for playgrounds that subsequently led to the change of all playgrounds today (due in large part to fear of lawsuits in situations where the playgrounds were not up to the new codes), there has been little change in the rate of injury between then and now; “We might accept a few more phobias in our children in exchange for fewer injuries. But the final irony is that our close attention to safety has not in fact made a tremendous difference in the number of accidents children have. According to the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System, which monitors hospital visits, the frequency of emergency-room visits related to playground equipment, including home equipment, in 1980 was 156,000 or one visit per 1,452 Americans. In 2012, it was 271,475, or one per 1,156 Americans”.
It seems that these days we are driven to shelter our children; encouraged to always hold their hand and guide them and supervise them. But, in-doing-so we can also dissemble them by making them reliant on us for safety and protection, guidance and direction. When you work at a job, for example, and show you are able to conquer a task with competence, you move up the ladder and are given more responsibilities and, as a result, you build confidence and independence and self-worth. The same goes, or used to go, for raising children; “Children used to gradually take on responsibilities, year by year. They crossed the road, went to the store; eventually some would get neighborhood jobs. Their pride was wrapped up in competence and independence, which grew as they tried and mastered activities they hadn’t known how to do the previous year. But these days, middle-class children skip these milestones. They spend a lot of time in the company of adults, so they can talk and think like them, but they never build up the confidence to be truly independent and self-reliant”.
The article concludes in differentiating between avoiding major hazards and making every decision with the primary goal of optimizing child safety (or enrichment, or happiness); “We can no more create the perfect environment for our children than we can create perfect children. To believe otherwise is a delusion, and a harmful one; remind yourself of that every time panic rises”.
It’s difficult to trust my boys at the age they’re at and I’m still adjusting to letting go and encouraging exploration; but I think it’s a battle worth fighting. I remind myself often of the big picture. I’m not raising children, I’m raising future adults.
What are your thoughts on the subject? Do you encourage your children to take risks? How did you grow up? Did you have a lot of unsupervised time as a child? And if you’re a grandparent, how do you feel things have changed (or not changed) since you raised your kids?