Thursday, July 1, 2010

Playing It Safe

Do you remember the freedom of your childhood? Playing in the park without adult supervision? Riding bikes all over town with the reminder to be home for dinner tucked in your back pocket? Walking down country roads without fear or concern? Being minded at summer camp by teenagers who had little experience with taking care of gaggles of children let alone having current Criminal Record Checks on file or First Aid training?

Society and the world seem changed to me. I know that some of the changes are for the good. It's reassuring to know that the people to whom we entrust our children have clean records. It's also good that people tending for our children have some sense of how to handle emergency situations. It's good that kids know to not get into strangers' cars or to not help people look for lost dogs or to not accept offers of candy unless their parents are with them.

But with all this common sense comes a heightened sense of fear, for both kids and parents. I certainly feel it. My level of concern is perhaps heightened beyond that of most parents because of my past work experience. I am certainly more concerned about safety than my mother ever was.

And I want my kid to grow up confident and fearless in the world - taking responsibility for his actions, using his common sense, and feeling bold to explore the world (safely - LOL).

Matt Hern, editor of the now out-of-print Deschooling Our Lives (but coming out this spring as the revised Everywhere All the Time: A New Deschooling Reader) and author of Field Day: Getting Society Out of School, has written a book titled Watch Yourself: Why Safer Isn't Always Better

From warnings on coffee cups to colour–coded terrorist gauges to ubiquitous security cameras, our culture is obsessed with safety.

Some of this is drive by lawyers and insurance, and some by over–zealous public officials, but much is indicative of a cultural conversation that has lost its bearings. The result is not just a neurotically restrictive society, but one which actively undermines individual and community self–reliance. More importantly, we are creating a world of officious administration, management by statistics, absurd regulations, rampaging lawsuits, and hygenically cleansed public spaces. We are trying to render the human and natural worlds predictable and calculated. In doing so, we are trampling common discourse about politics and ethics.

Hern asserts that safer just isn’t always better. Throughout Watch Yourself, he emphasizes the need to rethink our approach to risk, reconsider our fixation with safety, and reassert individual decision–making.


Another Canadian, social worker and therapist Michael Ungar, has written Too Safe for Their Own Good: How Risk and Responsibility Help Teens Thrive. He goes beyond discussing our over-concern for physical safety and critiques the current drive to protect our children from emotional risk and failure.

Canadian children are safer now than at any other time in history. So why are we so fearful for them? When they’re young, we drive them to playdates, fill up their time with organized activity, and cocoon them from every imaginable peril. We think we are doing what’s best for them. But as they grow into young adults and we continue to manage their lives, running interference with teachers and coaches, we are, in fact, unwittingly stunting them.

Internationally respected social worker and family therapist Michael Ungar tells us why our mania to keep our kids safe is causing us to do the opposite: put them in harm’s way. By continuing to protect them from failure and disappointment, many of our kids are missing out on the “risk-taker’s advantage,” the benefits that come from experiencing manageable amounts of danger. In Too Safe for Their Own Good, Ungar inspires parents to recall their own childhoods and the lessons they learned from being risk-takers and responsibility-seekers, much to the annoyance of their own parents. He offers the support parents need in setting appropriate limits and provides concrete suggestions for allowing children the opportunity to experience the rites of passage that will help them become competent, happy, thriving adults.


I am in great admiration of the many home learning families in our community who seem to have this stuff in hand. Their kids are out there, living life, experiencing the natural world first-hand, gaining confidence and figuring out their own sense of responsibility.

And here are some additional reading suggestions for those of us who are moving that direction but can use a gentle nudge now and then:

The Dangerous Book for Boys by brothers Conn and Hal Iggulden

The Daring Book for Girls by Andrea J. Buchanan and Miriam Peskowitz

Child's Play: Rediscovering the joy of play in our families and communities by Canadian athlete Silken Laumann

Last Child in the Woods: Saving our children from Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv

Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the heart in nature education by David Sobel

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