Gustafson: Are your children safe?
The familiar tale begins, “When I was a kid, I’d go out to play in the morning and my parents didn’t see me all day.” Or, “If my parents ever knew what we got up to … and it’s a wonder I made it through childhood in one piece.”
I doubt you could get a group of people over a certain age, perhaps somewhere around 30, together and ask them about their childhood without someone beginning a story that goes something like that.
We all nod along, relating to it, and most everyone will be eagerly awaiting their opportunity to share the foolish stuff they did, as well. So how is it we are the very same people who, as parents, are making sure our own kids are never out of sight (“don’t play in that filthy sand box or on that old tire, or near a fast-moving stream or street sidewalk”)?
When I was a kid, oh here I go, we had a large cable spool left over from a construction project that doubled as both a battle wheel and, in the upright position, a splintery tea table. It was awesome. We also had a long, rusty, old section of culvert that we used as a tunnel, and a bunch of truck tires we would climb into as we tested our bone density rolling down the hillside. This was the playground we had in the once sage-covered field next to the high school, which has now been replaced by a state-of-the-art (seriously the best in class) playground with rubbery floors beneath the slides and 20-plus swings so no one has to take turns.
We played in that field, or during school on the concrete pad outside of the yellow brick elementary, which felt fancy once a few families including my dad and I decided to paint a colorful 50-foot-long map of the United States on the cement ground. There was a climber and there were four swings, and if you could stand patiently and count to 200 before the bell rang, the almost-always older occupant might give you a 20-second turn swinging before recess ended. Yep, we sometimes just threw rocks at each other because there was nothing else to do, but we also learned to duck and run pretty well as a result.
Come to think of it, I didn’t have a harness to aid me in learning to ski, either. I believe I decided it was time to figure it out for myself at the age of 2 while flying out of my dad’s backpack on a cross-country trail. Again, skiing was more of a survival necessity than a sport.
It’s an interesting dichotomy because what I think we are really feeling when we share these memories is that same old thrill and the adrenaline rush of being a child and exploring and surviving the world. And yet it’s also often the last thing we want for our own kids.
I’m not suggesting that the out-of-sight parenting thing is ideal, either. Well, at least not under many circumstances, but so many lessons are lost when we go too far the other way.
Telling kids not to talk to strangers is another rather conflicting concept. Talking to strangers under somewhat controlled situations at first is what teaches kids to assess danger, to evaluate people, to learn about social interaction, a skill today’s youth needs more than ever. It empowers them to be able to ask for help if it ever comes to that, or speak up for themselves as need be.
I remember when dozens of us middle-schoolers would line up at The Aspen Times on Thursdays to purchase our supply of the weekly papers and then spread out to every office, shop and corner of Aspen to peddle our papers.
If we raise our kids in bubble wrap, development is diminished and self-sufficiency is slowed, and they will probably choke on it, anyway.
If we take the plunge and expose our children to reasonable dangers, like playing on the monkey bars without a spotter or padded landing, sure, someone might call the cops or sue the school, but our kids might acquire a little resilience.
And by the way, the world is not as dangerous as the news would have us believe. We are terrified by social media and old-fashioned news stories that tell us (often falsely) that our children are in constant grave danger, and we are
sold the false concept that if you baby-proof enough and are diligent enough, kids can be made completely safe. This leads to guilt and blame when that rare accident happens.
Society reinforces an idea that good parents never let their kids out of their sight for a moment, so the lady on the news who lost track of her kid at the zoo is a bad mother, or the family that experienced a tragedy on a camping trip must be unfit parents. But this doesn’t allow for fate or genuine accidents, or a little “there but for the grace of God.” The way we all reminisce about surviving our youth.
We must take with a grain of salt the perceived danger versus the real deal, and the role that social media plays in freaking us all out by highlighting accidents. We should make a conscious effort to avoid blaming and shaming the parents when things go wrong. There is a necessary learning potential that comes with reasonable risks, and the societal pressures to be perceived as a good parent often undermine those teachable moments.
All of these place barriers between reality and the parental utopia we are promised in each of the astonishing 200,000 different book titles available offering safe parenting advice.
I know I got kicked in the face between the swing set and chain metal fence on the elementary school playground while counting far beyond 200 for my unrequited turn. I inhaled my fair share of dirty sand and somehow managed not to fall from the two-story tower of terror that once sat in the corner of Heron Park. And I’m pretty sure each bruise, splinter and scar helped to prepared me for life, though I’m still considering designing an expandable, invisible teenage-size leash for my son in anticipation of a little future karmic retribution.
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