The other day I passed by the elementary school that both my kids attended. It was recess time, and I paused for a moment to watch the junior students in the fenced-in play area, as they ran about under the watchful eye of a teacher wearing a reflective orange vest.
I thought back to another early spring day, when Rachel was in Grade 2 at that school. She and Mitchell and I had been walking home one Sunday afternoon when she let out a sudden wail that nearly took my hair off: “IT’S GONE! WHERE DID IT GO?”
Sure enough, the huge, elaborate play structure that had been the centrepiece of the play yard was just…gone. The earth around it had been torn up by machinery, and all the swings, slides, monkey bars, and climbing structures had vanished as though they’d never been there.
Rachel was inconsolable, and we were mystified. The next day we found out the reason: some parents had complained that the play structure was dangerous. What if a kid were to fall off the monkey bars? Or slide down the slide too fast? Or swing too high and fall off? Won’t someone think of the children!?
They’d be replacing the old structure, the principal reassured us. Rachel wasn’t convinced, and it turned out she was right: Grade 2 came and went; Grade 3….and by the time we pulled her out of the school (for other reasons involving an abusive teacher), there was still no sign of the new play structure. Safety trumped fun, and the kids lost out.
Back when you and I were kids, adults didn’t seem to focus quite so much on child safety.
When I was 8 or 9 years old, my best friend Cindy and I would set out through a local abandoned apple orchard on sunny Saturday afternoons. We’d gather apples (small and sour, but we didn’t care), and shove them into our pockets to eat at our destination: an old wooden barn, deserted and decrepit. We’d climb up to the roof via a ladder with several rungs missing, and sit in the sunshine, gossiping and munching on our apples as we looked out over the gnarled apple trees and tried to spot the roofs of our own houses.
Could we have been hurt? Of course! That old barn was full of dangers: rusty nails sticking out of walls, elderly wood that could fall apart under our weight. And who would have heard us if anything had happened?
Yet our parents seemed to take a cavalier attitude to all the dangers that could have befallen us—and in my case, often did. There was the time I fell during a game of tag and gashed my knee on a piece of rusty paint tin. Cindy and her brother Dougie bundled met into her wagon and raced down the hill to our house with me in tow, bleeding profusely and feeling slightly important to be receiving all that attention. Mum took one look at the cut, gave me a handful of tissues to press against it, and drove me to the hospital for several stitches. She didn’t seem distressed, only mildly inconvenienced, as I’d interrupted her day.
I’d like to say I long for the old days, when parents let kids do all sorts of insanely dangerous things: I climbed trees, rode my bike to distant parks, played in partially constructed houses, stepped on nails, and on one memorable occasion, fell into a fire, burning my hands and knees. Such injuries were just the price we paid for being active kids.
But then I think of some of the truly terrible things that have happened, sometimes to children I know: a friend’s son was riding on his father’s shoulders, slipped backward, and fell to the concrete sidewalk. He suffered a severe concussion, with lasting effects. I’ve seen children fall from play structures and break arms; and Mitchell once watched a young child stand up in her mother’s grocery cart, then topple out with a sickening crack as her little head hit the floor.
So as much as I’d like to argue for a return to the carefree days when kids could be kids, I have to admit that our modern focus on safety has a lot of merit. Seat belts and car seats (properly fitted) save lives; baby equipment must meet safety standards; bike helmets prevent concussions; latched gates keep kids away from swimming pools and accidental drowning. All good things.
Still, now and again I think about the thrill of climbing up that old rotting barn to eat pilfered apples with my best friend…and I wish our kids could have the same kind of adventures.
Just, you know, safely.