Safety and Risk
Most of my childhood was spent living seven miles south of a small college town in eastern South Dakota. Days in the summer were spent outside in the fields around our five acre plot, picking berries and vegetables in the garden (enthusiastically…some of the time) and strategically placing Breyer horse models and My Little Ponies in various little nooks and crannies around the homestead. Spring was muddy and wet, but that just meant there were streams in the back in which to splash. Fall was about apples and jumping in piles of leaves and waiting for the first snowflake. Winter was all about burrowing into the snow, sledding down the hills in the neighbor’s pasture and skating on the frozen cow pond. My brothers and I roamed.
My folks still live on that homestead, but when I was in the 4th grade, we packed up and moved a few states over to Indiana so my mom could finish up her graduate work at Purdue University. For three years we lived in a little gray house smack dab in the middle of a city. Instead of looking out the windows and seeing prairie grass and adolescent pine trees, we saw sidewalks and the houses across the street. We had an ally out back and neighbors. Lots of them. My parents turned most of our postage sized yard into a garden (of course), my dad made the tiny garage into a wood working shop and my mom blazed her way to a PH d in three short years, dissertation and all. And in the midst of the foreign cityscape and different pace of life, my brothers and I still roamed. It was 1990, and I was 10 years old. My twin brothers were 6 and the youngest was 4.
We spent hours in the back ally with the neighbor kids, we explored our immediate block on bikes and scooters, and we walked home from school. It was, of course, very different from the free play time we had on the South Dakota prairie, but there were ample adventures none the less. There was the time that one of the twins arrived home, breathless from jogging the last 4-5 blocks, to exclaim, “Big Jimmy’s sitting on Zan!” to my dad. Big Jimmy (age ~8 or so) was the neighborhood bully and my antagonistic sprite of a youngest brother had become his latest triumph. The situation was swiftly remedied (Big Jimmy was already gone by the time dad arrived) and the days went on. There were ramshackle forts to build next to the garage, trees to climb and little snits to get into with the pack of kids that roamed the block. And there was the time a strange man approached my brothers and I as we rounded the last corner to our house on the walk home from school. He invited us to get into his car, which is about all I can remember other than the fact that I said a firm no, grabbed my brothers’ hands, and we walked the rest of the way home.
Why am I telling these stories, you ask? Because that freedom to roam and the lack of fear around doing so – even with the “bad” things that happened or could have happened as a result – was a defining part of my generation’s childhood story. But for the generations of kids born in the 2000s? The freedom to roam doesn’t define their collective story. What does define it is technology, screen time, fear of being kidnapped or hurt and too many scheduled activities. (Obviously, this is a vast generalization and there are plenty of kids who do not fit into this description)
These days you hear news stories about parents who let their 6 and 9 year olds walk to the park across the street and are reported to social services for child endangerment. You hear stories about laws that forbid children from walking a quarter mile down the road after getting off the bus without an adult guardian present. You hear stories about people who can say “We spent our childhoods outside” with pride while they shuttle their own offspring from soccer to piano lessons to dance class, all in the same week because the thought of their child not “being well-rounded” or spending free time after school unsupervised is terrifying.
Of course parents want their kids to be safe. Parents want their kids to have opportunities that they perhaps didn’t have. I have a four year old, and I want her to be safe. I want her to have plenty of opportunity to do what makes her soul sing. But as she grows, I also want her to be able to develop autonomy and critical thinking skills and the grit that comes from having the opportunity to figure out tough situations out on her own.
Those years roaming the fields on the prairie and the back ally ways of the city? Those times provided opportunities to develop leadership, to practice compassion, to make hard decisions, and offered proof that we could face adversity and be ok on the other side of it.
H. Emerson Blake writes:
“What’s safer for a child: running loose in the mud of an empty lot, or sitting on the couch plugged in to a bunch of electronic devices? Is it safe to lead someone to believe that he or she will always have teachers and authorities present? Safe not to know how to talk to people who are different? Safe not to know what it’s like to be startled by the world?”
Safe; adjective. To be protected from or not exposed to danger or risk; not likely to be harmed or lost.
I might be so bold to say that by not exposing our children to risk, we are setting them up to be more likely to be harmed or lost in the face of challenge later in life.
Blake goes on to say:
“Evolution has prepared us for this. We have both the tools and the innate desire for connection to the world around us. And we will never be able to grapple fully with the world’s problems unless we are plunged and immersed in it. The world of woods and water and fields – and the sidewalks that children use to walk home from school –are among our greatest teachers.”
I know that to be true. And I want to share my truth with my child and hope that by sharing, I am helping increase the chances that she feels safe because she has had the opportunities to build the capacity to handle whatever happens next.