“A ship in port is safe, but that’s not what ships are made for.” ~ Grace Murray Hopper
Child safety has become obsessive in our society. Children are being controlled to the point of having their natural play-spaces and freedom ripped away from them at an alarming rate.
For instance: “…nearly 20 homes on Esgore Drive, in (Toronto), were threatened with $90 fines from the city if they did not remove hockey and basketball nets from their street in the next 20 days.” The article goes on to say that, “A bylaw… states that ‘no person shall play or take part in any game or sport upon a roadway and, where there are sidewalks, no person upon roller-skates, in-line skates or a skateboard, or riding in or by means of any coaster, scooter, toy vehicle, toboggan, sleigh or similar device, shall go upon a roadway except for the purpose of crossing the road, and, when so crossing, such person shall have the rights and be subject to the obligations of a pedestrian.’”
“The city says that poses a safety issue and impedes traffic.” And, of course, it’s a liability issue says Coun. Christin Carmichael Greb.
Hmmm… so you say it’s about liabilities and safety, eh? Are you sure? Let’s keep exploring…
My friend Suzy told me how her neighbor called social services because she noticed Suzy’s children playing in the back yard unattended. Suzy was actually inside the house the entire time, but the neighbor saw clear present danger and decided to send Suzy a surprising knock on her door!
Children playing outside… AND unsupervised?! What’s this world coming to?!
In the United States it is becoming common for families to be sued by neighbors who think children are making too much noise on the streets. One bewildered parent who received legal notification said, “It’s unfathomable to me. I can’t imagine the sound of kids playing at any age or stage of my life and thinking that I needed to sue someone over it.” Apparently, the disgruntled neighbors “claim the children’s playhouse is upsetting their ‘tranquil quality of life’ and ‘creating noise issues as well as visibility issues for them and their pets.’”
But of course! Children are supposed to be calm, focused and still, you know, just how we expect them to be at their desks six hours a day.
Clearly, we have become obsessed with safety and order—with being civilized!
What is it about safety and order?
Why are we so quick to sanitize childhood, to take away a child’s natural right to freely roam, take risks, be wild at play? Especially at a time when children are glued to their technology and studies more than ever while streets continue to empty?
“Since the 1970s the area in which children roam without adults has decreased by almost 90%.”
I remember being a rambunctious kid tearing down Kilmarnock Street in North Vancouver seated on my skateboard racing other kids doing the same, cutting corners full steam, and without a helmet! I remember climbing slippery wet trees so high that I soared above rooftops with blue jays and robins, believing myself to be the highest kid in town! I remember jumping off cliffs into ice-cold currents that shook me and took me into eddies and secret caves behind waterfalls. All without supervision!
“The more risks you allow your children to make, the better they learn to look after themselves.” ~ Roald Dahl
Okay, so we want more sanitized safety, let’s do that!
“Over the last decade when more and more playgrounds were being commissioned with impact attenuated rubber-based products we have witnessed a steady 20% increase in the injury rate.” Children, naturally, are being less careful and parents less mindful when they think the ground is softer.
Yes, dirt is much, much worse. Besides, we wouldn’t want children to get dirty, would we?
“A safe person is not someone who abstains from risk, but rather a person who can assess risk and decide what they are physically and emotionally capable of.” ~ Sunflower Creative Arts
Okay, so the rubber isn’t working (excuse the pun!). So let’s just tighten up our rules on how children ought to behave. That should do the trick! Let’s have more schoolyard patrollers surveying their every move, ensuring that there is no roughhousing, no running amok, no….
“Ripping up the playground rulebook is having incredible effects on children at an Auckland school. Chaos may reign at Swanson Primary School with children climbing trees, riding skateboards and playing bullrush during playtime, but surprisingly the students don’t cause bedlam, the principal says. The school is actually seeing a drop in bullying, serious injuries and vandalism, while concentration levels in class are increasing.”
So you are telling me that tackling games like bullrush are actually good for children? Knocking each other over, falling on top of one another with pointed elbows and flying stone-like knees is actually beneficial to a child? How can that be? It’s not safe!
“Roughhousing triggers a chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which really is like fertilizer for our brains. It activates multiple areas of the brain and promotes healthy brain development, including stimulating neuron growth within the cortex and hippocampus regions of the brain, responsible for memory, learning, language, and logic. It ups a child’s academic and emotional smarts, motor skill development, and a feeling of being happy.”
Oh… right… ! But, but…
And let’s not forget that in the UK alone, more than 20,000 people are admitted to the hospital every year … after falling out of BED! Meanwhile, “Figures obtained from England’s hospitals show the number of tree-related accidents has fallen by 36 per cent from 1999 to 2006. (In 2006) there were 1,163 incidents but seven years ago the figure was much higher at 1,823.”
We are so worried about bumps and bruises, scrapes and blood, rowdiness and raucousness that, bit-by-bit, we are squeezing the joy and memories out of childhood.
And so the question is: Why?
Because we are afraid—us adults, that is. Not the kids.
If only we remember our mischievous, playful childhood we may recall how we, and other children, were naturally fearless risk-takers, explorers, expressers of tears and delight, believers that anything is possible. But because of our own learnt fears, likely incurred from controlling parents and schooling, we tucked away the natural instinct to jump, leap, scream, cry, fall, climb, risk, test and guess. We learned to dim our wildfires, to “not stand out”, to “grow up”, to “get a grip”, to “not make waves”, to “straighten out”, to “be responsible”. We learned to self-control because we were taught on many levels that being out-of-control was bad, to not speak out, explore and push the uncivil edges.
In fearing our undomesticated, spontaneous instincts, we made these natural qualities unsafe. We fenced in our unbounded, wild inner and outer playground.
This fear, as we grow up, is then projected onto onto children. In dimming our wildfires, we fear theirs. When their fires burn too bright it scares our controlled, contained self. And so the only response is to control them, and call it “safety”.
There’s a place for limits and safety
“If children feel safe, they can take risks, ask questions, make mistakes, learn to trust, share their feelings, and grow.” ~ Alfie Kohn
Let’s not take away all limits. They indeed serve a purpose. In fact, five:
- To maximize creativity
- To maximize exploration
- To maximize learning
- To maximize development
- To maximize safety
Imagine that we have a 15th story balcony. If a railing were built (as is usually the case) it is fair to say that most children and adults would move right up to the edge. That limit serves to safely invite new opportunities, to expand horizons of learning and perception. However, if the balcony was left without a railing we could rightfully say that most people (except for crawling babies and wobbly toddlers!) would be far more hesitant to move up to the edge.
Yet, metaphorically speaking, how many adults place the railing five feet from the edge, ten feet away, twenty feet away, at home, school, and elsewhere? And how much of this is done so the adult feels safe and comfortable, not the child?
It’s for the adult, more than we think!
In other words, without knowing it adults make safety more of a goal than necessary, which limits child creativity, exploration, learning and development. They do so because it’s the safety they need. Their sense of danger is skewed by their own perception, their own history.
“One study compared the families of children who were rated among the most creative 5 percent in their school system with those who were not unusually creative. The parents of ordinary children had an average of six rules, like specific schedules for homework and bedtime. Parents of highly creative children had an average of fewer than one rule.”
The real danger
The real danger we have here is less about children hurting themselves and more about adults running the show blind to their fears and limiting beliefs—unaware of the placement of their inner railing (which I’ll now refer to as the inner fence to their inner playground). The real danger is adults who are unaware of how their risk-averse, sedated nature routinely and unwittingly takes away a child’s unbridled wildness, their fearlessness to climb along fences and up scraggly trees. The real danger is adults who are unaware of how their inner fence placement mitigates the necessary bumps and bruises all kids must gather to grow up as confident, self-directed risk-takers.
And non-conforming risk takers are what the world desperately needs!
There was a time to fence off who we naturally were. For most of us, this need to behave a certain way, to push away our native Self, including our feelings, was a necessary survival response—a way to fit in, gain approval, feel safe and loved. Though the unsafe parent, scary baby sitter, demanding teacher and abusive uncle are no longer present as they once were, we still operate in a traumatized state protecting ourselves, fencing off our wider range of authenticity and instinct. Our past reactive fight, flight, freeze arousal state is frozen in time (trauma) and we operate as if danger still lurks, as if we still live at home and go to school.
“Stranger danger” propaganda from the media doesn’t help either, further feeding our need to be on guard and fence children in. I was speaking to a police Sargent and asked him if he had seen an increase in “stranger danger” during his thirty years of policing in five communities across British Columbia, Canada. He said absolutely not. He then warned of our perceptions—or beliefs! And the news!
“Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.” ~ Helen Keller
It’s no coincidence that as we live in a more fearful world children’s inner and outer playgrounds shrink. The real danger is fear, more than we currently understand, and the limiting beliefs that arise from it. More so, the real danger is our reluctance to be self-aware, our fear of turning inwards, of facing our fear.
Step 1: Become self-aware
We believe we can effectively run homes, schools and communities without being self-aware; without knowing where we come from, what parts of ourselves we have left behind; without sensing how we have compensated for having lost our wild innocence; and without grieving the grief that is stored in our body from having denied so much of what is true, what is authentic to our hearts. We can, of course, “function” without self-reflection—we can perform the basic responsibilities of parenting, teaching, administration and governance; but our effectiveness is relative to how much we live true to our inner playground’s nature.
We can express ourselves from our heart and make choices from clear perception insomuch as we inhabit the fullness of who we authentically are. As our inner playground narrows, so too does our sense of inner truth, perception and range of action. This then shrinks the lives of children.
It takes courage and humility to be self-aware, to reflect on our beliefs, to consider why we make a particular choice, where it is coming from. To honestly look at ourselves and ask, Who am I doing this for?
A parent tells a child to put on a coat so the parent feels warm.
- That coat I am telling my daughter to wear; is it for her or for me?
- That roughhousing I am refereeing; is it for them or for me?
- That school I am pushing my son to get into; is it for him or for me?
Who is it for?
What do I feel unsafe being that I must project onto children and protect them from? (Example: imaginative, adventurous, wild.) What have I denied within that I am now denying in them?
How much of what I expect children to be is the opposite of what I can’t be with within, the opposite of what has been fenced off in me? (Example: I expect a child to be orderly because I can’t be with messiness. I expect a child to get high grades because I can’t be with my own failure. I expect a child to be careful because I have fenced off the riskier parts of my inner playground.)
I don’t visit those shadowy parts of the playground anymore, and so I ensure my child, or the children I supervise, don’t either. If they stay away, I feel safer. How I restrain them I call “safety”… for them.
These are the real issues we are not considering, the questions we are not asking, the stories behind the stories, the truths beyond the research. The heart of the matter.
For so much of what we control outside of us is a reflection of what we avoid within.
From controlling to revisiting
Adults continue to control outside environments, including neighborhood streets and child behavior; to think they can do the unconscious more rigorously, strategically and often, and get a positive result. But this only leads to rising problems (a good definition of insanity—doing the same thing again and again and thinking things will change), including soaring rates of anxiety and depression, the over-medication of children, the addiction to technology, a proliferation of unwarranted, paranoid legal action, and higher degrees of bureaucracy and regulation. (One elementary school teacher told me she now has ten times more reporting and general administration to do after class than ten years prior.)
Thinking we can change our world by simply adjusting rules, policies and legislation, by reductive means such as “anti-gang strategies” (that don’t work), antibiotics (which bacteria are now completely resistant to), imprisonment (yet prison rates continue to soar) is an illusion and only leads to further complications. Politicians promise these forms of controlled, reductive change strategies all the time, yet how many fail on their campaign promises? How many new unexpected problems arise?
Einstein astutely said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” A new level of consciousness is needed if we are to transform existing problems for the better. If we are to see and respond to children with clearer heart perception, and to, instead of removing their inner and outer playgrounds, explore and expand them, and gleefully jump in with them.
This begins with looking within instead of only looking outside. But people are afraid to turn their attention inwards, to self-examine, to take full responsibility for their lives, for their impact.
This is the hidden inner game, and kids are suffering for our lack of willingness to play it, to take responsibility for our old, outdated inner stories and the traumas that gave rise to them. To revisit the shadowy parts of our inner playground.
Kids will continue to have their inner and outer playgrounds shrink so long as we dance this tiring dance. We’ll make scapegoats out of them for our own inner turmoil in the same way we teach them self-regulation without considering where we need to regulate, without considering co-regulation. They’re the ones with the problems, after all, not us over here. We’re just fine! (Again, another form of reductionism—let’s remove their anxiety without considering the whole, the impact of the system, our cultural norms and traumas. Reductive scientists do this for a living. They study grass without considering cows; they study surfaces without perceiving depths. Allopathic doctors study and medicate the liver without considering trauma, the nervous system, the whole human being.)
And so it behooves us to revisit the parts of our inner playground we once thrived in, the ones we no longer dare go into—our wholeness, such that we perceive holistic solutions. To explore the lost imagination, the forgotten dreams, the forsaken wonder, the censored silliness, the dimmed wildness. To reclaim the undomesticated one, the loud one, the one who speaks out of turn and leaps without restraint, that trusts one’s innerness without reason, who gets drunk on uncivilized risk and adventure. By doing so, by re-inhabiting our inner playground, by stretching that fence further than we ever thought we could, we’ll automatically widen the playground for children. As our spirits are liberated, we will feel less of a need to control those of the children we love.
“You were wild once. Don’t let them tame you.” ~ Isadora Duncan
* * *
Check out Vince’s book: Let the Fire Burn ~ Nurturing the Creative Spirit of Children, A Children’s Book for Adults