Kids and Safety: When (If) to Let Go

A growing movement has parents asking themselves, am I being overprotective? Could I be the dreaded helicopter parent? Especially for parents of younger children, the question of when and how to loosen the reins a bit probably looms large. Helicopter parenting, also known as “hyper-parenting” is nothing new, nor is it location specific. Helicopter parenting (so named because Mom and Dad are always “hovering” about) was criticized as far back as ancient Rome. Schoolteacher Lucius Orbilius Pupillus considered pushy parents an occupational hazard in his classroom, and that was 2,000 years ago. In present day Scandinavia, “curling parents” sweep the proverbial ice in front of their kids, and “education mothers” literally steer their children through the school system in Japan.

It’s a natural and certainly well-intentioned instinct to want to protect our young. In fact, isn’t the whole point of civilization to make our world safe enough to allow individual and community flourishing? We know from The Lord of the Flies what can happen when rules evaporate, at least on fictional islands among fictional castaways. Ironically, recent (nonfictional) studies show, too much safety can be, well, dangerous.

It might look primitive to adults, but imagine being a kid in this place!

It might look primitive to adults, but imagine being a kid in this place!

In the April issue of The Atlantic, Hannah Rosin takes up the hue and cry, urging, “Hey, parents, leave those kids alone”! Her story, “The Overprotected Kid” details examples of parents doing just that by sending their kids to places like “The Land,” an adventure playground more akin to a junkyard than an amusement park. Have the vivid reds, blues, and yellows of the neighborhood playground seared your retinas one too many times? Prefer rusted metal and dry-rotted rubber to eye-popping plastics? The Land might just be the place for you(r kid)! Complete with firepits and old mattresses for trampolines, this playground is located in North Wales and was inspired by social experiments in post-World War II Europe. Although the emotional climate of that era was vastly different than that of today, the mission might still be worth pursuing: fostering independence and problem-solving ability as well as the ability to assess risk/benefit ratios.

In the later 1940s, Lady Marjory Allen began designing “playgrounds with loose parts that kids could move around and manipulate, to create their own makeshift structures. But more important, she wanted to encourage a ‘free and permissive atmosphere’ with as little adult supervision as possible. The idea was that kids should face what to them seem like ‘really dangerous risks’ and then conquer them alone. That, she said, is what builds self-confidence and courage.” The specific dangers we face may have shifted, but surely trying, getting knocked down, and getting back up again are skills necessary for any age.

In "The Lord of the Flies," William Golding presented a much more dystopian view of what happens when kids are left to their own devices than what new research suggests.

In “The Lord of the Flies,” William Golding presented a much more dystopian view of what happens when kids are left to their own devices than what new research suggests.

Grit—it’s the education buzzword of the 2010s. Many of us fondly recall childhoods devoid of helmets, buckles, and, restraints of other kinds. Some of us might even long for a return to that freedom to scrape a knee and bleed. Are we gritty? Or just abraded and scarred? A primary school in New Zealand would vote for the former. After ditching their playground rules at recess as part of an academic study by two NZ universities, they found that chaos did not ensue; instead, bullying and vandalism went down and, even more surprisingly, grades went up. Piggy gets to keep his glasses, in short.

“The great paradox of cotton-woolling children is it’s more dangerous in the long-run,” said one of the researchers. “Society’s obsession with protecting children ignores the benefits of risk-taking.” Children develop the frontal lobe of their brain when taking risks, meaning they learn to work through possible consequences in advance and then weigh the payoff of an action against them. The NZ researchers would argue that this can’t be taught but must be learned in real time. So, the Swanson Primary School in Auckland features a playground with bike-riding, mud-sliding, tree-climbing, and all of those other super fun kids things really, really like to do. Happy children evidently make for engaged students, to the surprise of the school’s teachers, many whom were initially opposed to having the school participate in the research.

According to current data, unsupervised play confers plenty of emotional, cognitive, and behavioral benefits, whereas—almost counterintuitively—rates of physical harm do not correspondingly rise.

This issue is absolutely polarizing, and this post makes no claims one way or the other, except that “The Overprotected Kid” is a fascinating read. The author, in an NPR interview about the piece, stated, “One sad thought I had while doing this is that we often say children grow up too fast, but maybe they never get the chance to grow up at all— to take the necessary interim steps in order to feel independent, in order to manage risk, in order to manage sadness. I love the close relationship I have with my children. This is going to be a fine line we all try to walk without having a suffocating or stifling relationship with them.” And research shows that those kinds of stifling relationships are practically petri dishes for developing colonies of phobias and neuroses in adulthood.

Still and all, fire? For kids? What do you think? Please let us know in comments!

Related stories: Why Parents Need To Let Their Children Fail

Kids These Days: Growing Up Too Fast or Never at All

When This New Zealand School Got Rid of Playtime Rules, It Actually Got Safer

Let Kids Play with Fire, and Other Good Rules for Parenting

One thought on “Kids and Safety: When (If) to Let Go

  1. For TNCS playground: well it could be planned to be Un supervised but since it’s fenced in its not going to be too crazy. I’m fine with rough except for maybe rusty nails in boards…. initial thoughts on the playground: I’d like to lose the gravel, get some more trees, and have some things to climb and maybe if they exist big modular stuff the kids could build with. Space to run without tripping over the wood beams might be nice. A mural mosaic on the walls that the students would make over time would be cool. Thanks for the post

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