My kids don’t listen to me. My mother might say this is because a) I am insufficiently consistent with my rules, b) I have insufficient rules, and c) I generally let them get away with murder.
Guilty as charged.
But lately I’ve begun to think that, at least when it comes to rules about safety, there’s a more macro reason why my boys tend to question authority. It’s from growing up in an increasingly fearful, paranoid, lawsuit-prone world that has dumped so many rules on them that they’re learning to distrust all of them.
I saw this cynicism in action a few weeks ago, when I took the boys and our dog for a romp in the woods. All three had a great time bush-whacking through the thicket, scrambling up boulders, climbing on old stone walls, and sliding on their bellies across frozen puddles.
But when we came to a large frozen pond of an unknown depth, and I told them they could not, under any terms, walk out on the ice. They looked at me like I was insane, like I had just told them they had to put on helmets and elbow-pads before eating their breakfast cereal.
I know, I know—they should just listen, no questions asked. But jaded by years of listening to adults tell them not to run, climb, and jump, not to forget their seat belts, bicycle helmets, sledding helmets, skating helmets, knee pads, elbow pads, and shin guards, none of which were factors in my childhood, my boys didn’t recognize a reasonable rule when it was staring them in the face.
The way they rolled their eyes and challenged this perfectly logical, potentially life-saving rule (don’t walk on thin ice) reminded me of citizens of the erstwhile Soviet Union, who were so bombarded with illogical laws that they developed the habit of scoffing at all laws—even smart ones like wearing seat belts. The general approach was: if the Soviet government said it was good for you, it wasn’t.
The general approach of my boys is: if grown-ups tell you that you can’t do something, it’s because they are neurotic worry-warts who are determined to suck the joy out of life.
Melodramatic? Yes. But listen to where they’re coming from. Even in their short life times, they’ve seen safety-consciousness grow.
When my fourth-grader started elementary school, one of the highlights of the year was when the kids were allowed to climb the ropes in the gym. He still talks about a sprite of a classmate named Emma, who scooted right up the rope and touched the ceiling in kindergarten. But then came a new gym teacher, and a new edict: no climbing the ropes until fourth grade. And even then, no going more than half-way up.
From their perspective, it didn’t make sense: how could something that was once considered safe no longer be safe?
They used to love playing on the monkey bars in the school playground, but after a boy slipped from the monkey bars and broke his wrist, the monkey bars were removed from the playground. Again, my kids didn’t get it. How had one boy’s accident made them less likely to navigate the monkey bars with their bones intact?
On an individual basis, the rules are not absurd. And of course the school has the best intentions. But the cumulative effect is leading to rebellion.
I hear the kids complain about the litany of playground rules: There’s no climbing up the slide, no running down the slide, no hanging from the slide, no jumping off the slide. Dodge-ball, once allowed, is now forbidden. The other day during recess, my second-grader asked a teacher to toss a football with him and was told children younger than fourth-grade were not allowed to play football in the playground because it’s too dangerous.
Have these kinds of rules made my children more safety-conscious? More rule-bound?
On the contrary. Listening to their arguments at the allegedly frozen pond, I started thinking that when it comes to determining safety and real danger, my children are developmentally-challenged.
My older son goes to a summer camp that offers a lot of the science stuff he loves. But what really excites him is that he is allowed—trusted—to use a hot glue gun, a soldering iron, an exact-o knife, and explosives for launching rockets. I have a pretty good hunch that none of these things would ever be allowed in his public elementary school.
I sympathize with my kids and don’t want them to feel hemmed in, but I’m as guilty of worrying as the next parent, or as the school principal. I may not fear a lawsuit, but I genuinely don’t want them to get hurt. Isn’t it my job to keep them safe?
This is the challenge of parenting today—to balance our desire to protect our children with our desire to encourage them to be bold and to explore and know how and when to take risks.
It certainly isn’t easy to accept their yearning for danger. My boys find nothing more thrilling than riding without a seat belt, even for a few feet in the driveway. I can live with that. But I’m afraid worse is yet to come.
The other day my younger son, apropos of nothing, asked me what state cares the least about safety.
“I’m not sure, maybe Alaska? Texas?” I offered. “Why?”
“Because I want to go there!” he said.
By Karen Dukess for Burbia