How Safety Becomes Unsafe
ONE FROM THE AGES
Historian and cultural theorist, Johan Huizinga on play:
“To dare, to take risks, to bear uncertainty, to endure tension—these are the essence of the play spirit”
ONE FROM TODAY
Dr. Mariana Brussoni, Associate Professor at the University of British Columbia, developing risk management skills:
“My own and others’ research points to the importance of risk-taking opportunities in play for children’s health and development, including promoting self-confidence, social development, physical activity, and resilience. Risky play helps them learn about the world and how it works, learn about themselves and what their limits are, and learn how to keep themselves safe. When we try to limit children’s risky play, we rob them of these fundamental opportunities, which ironically, could result in them being less safe. This is because children learn risk management skills through exploring risk in play that they can apply to other situations. If they have an adult doing all the risk management for them, they will not learn how to do this for themselves. Keeping kids safe means letting them take risks.”
ONE FROM US
I have personally allowed dozens of kids to hurt themselves. I’ve sanctioned hundreds of bumps and bruises and an unfortunate amount of more serious injuries. I didn’t enjoy any of these moments, but I would never go back to change any of the outcomes. No, I’m not a sadist or a sociopath, I was simply being a coach (and a good one, at that).
Safety is a good thing. I’m currently writing this from a lush yard, enjoying the sunshine, the breeze, and the various natural sounds around me. I have no fear of being attacked by a bear or another person. In my safe environment, I can focus on my ideas and on expressing them well. But like all good things, we can take safety too far. I would never want to live forever in this little backyard Eden.
For decades, parents, teachers, and university staff have increasingly taken measures aimed at protecting kids, and even college students, from every conceivable danger. It’s well within their mandates as guardians, providers, and educators to keep their charges away from true danger. No responsible professor should march a class through an area with known gang violence, regardless of the firsthand sociological insights that the experience may provide. Ditto for studying wolves at arms-reach. However, as our world has grown increasingly safe, our focus on safety has not shrunk accordingly. Parents today are even more diligent about keeping their kids safe than ever before. But, keeping them safe from what?
Kids are drawn to risk and danger. Not because they are dumb little animals who don’t know any better, poised to walk off a cliff if the ever-vigilant parent did not prevent it. Kids seek dangerous situations because consequence is the best teacher. Consequences force focus and presence and bring out new levels of creativity and physical capabilities that the child might not have yet found.
We all know this intuitively. We’ve all been in a scary situation that has forced us to tap into something that we never knew we had. We’ve all felt the joy of rising to the occasion and the incomparable feeling of our powers growing. We all know—somehow, deep in our bones—that testing and expanding our limits is the purpose of life. Or maybe, we don’t all know this, and that is the problem.
Raising a child (or in my case, teaching one to skateboard or do gymnastics) takes courage. More than just the courage to bring a child into an uncertain and dangerous world. Great parenting (and teaching and coaching and mentoring) requires the courage to allow and even encourage your kids to take risks. It requires more courage still to continue to allow it even when your kids get hurt.
Risky play is all about launching yourself into unknown situations where you have to rely on your own abilities to survive. Kids are masters at metering this process if we allow them to be. When you step in to impose limits and rules, you disrupt the natural order of their learning. Risky behavior that was at first a simple curiosity, that they would likely approach with appropriate caution and focus, is now something to be feared rather than explored, mastered, and understood. You’ve dictated how they should feel about something, rather than allow them to discover and hone their abilities to handle it. It’s no wonder those kids scream for safe spaces and trigger warnings when they reach university.
Some of my greatest joys in life come from skateboarding. More specifically from the moments when I find myself in the air, grabbing my board, looking down on a very uncertain future. Most of these attempts end in failure and occasionally with painful injuries. But on the rare occasions when I roll away smoothly, basking in my newfound abilities and confidence, I am truly alive.
When one of the kids at skateboard camp tells me they want to attempt a new trick and asks if I think they are ready, I am faced with two options. I can tell them “no,” and feel assured that I won’t have to witness or take responsibility for the pain that is sure to follow. Or, I can mirror their courage and help give them the final boost of confidence that they might need to succeed in growing their abilities.
Anyone who has kids or works in youth development is faced with this dilemma constantly. I would say that we can deem good parents, teachers, and coaches by how courageously they handle this choice. It is easy to explain the rise of safetyism as good intentions taken too far, and to a certain extent, this is true. But, I can just as easily define safetyism as simple cowardice. In other words, it is not a desire to keep their kids safe that drives this trend, but parents’ desire to keep themselves safe and comfortable. What looks like overprotection is actually cowardice to avoid the uncomfortable and painful feelings that come from seeing your kids fail or hurt.