We were at the park. K climbed onto a trampoline-like apparatus and started jumping. Immediately, two children (aged 4 and 5, perhaps,) began whining: “No! Stop jumping! You’re not supposed to jump on this thing!”
(Here I must interrupt myself to point out that I don’t usually get involved at all in playground disagreements, but their objections were so absurd that I just couldn’t help myself.)
“Why not?” I asked them. “Looks to me like this thing was made for jumping.”
The five-year-old boy set me straight: “But it’s Dangerous!”
I looked around. The ground was paved with rubber. The apparatus itself seemed to be made of rubber and very sturdy ropes that were close enough together that no child could possibly fall off. Where the ropes intersected, the joint was encased in a rubber ball. Dangerous? I couldn’t see how.
Fortunately, the five-year old decided to enlighten me further by saying, “Last time someone jumped on this, I fell down!“
No scars, no bruise, no “I fell down and broke something.” No. He fell down, an act by which he proved that the apparatus was unsafe.
Readers, you’ll be proud to know that I didn’t just outright laugh in this child’s face. I certainly wanted to at first, until I realized that this child was being allowed to grow up with a ridiculous level of fear.
K has been learning to ride a two-wheeled bike (no training wheels) for the last few weeks. She could have made faster progress, I felt, had she not been so scared of falling and getting hurt. I was patient, though. I bit my tongue and sat on my hands. “See, Eema,” K told me, “this way I can make sure I don’t fall down and get hurt!”
Sure, kid. But you’re also making sure you don’t get to feel the wind in your face.
In my 34 years of life, I’ve been hurt many, many times. I’ve also been sick, both acutely and chronically. And every time, I have recovered.
Why does this matter? Because lately I’ve noticed a train of thought in my own mind that goes something like this: “What’s the worst that can happen? I get hurt? It’ll hurt like hell, but only for little while, and then I’ll be okay. That’s not so bad.” It seems that having experienced injuries and the healing process has given me a degree of courage, or maybe just a better perspective on risk. On balance, I’d say my past injuries were valuable and ultimately empowering experiences.
That’s why it makes me sad to see children who are convinced that getting hurt is the worst possible thing in the world, and that injuries only result from unsafe activities (should I tell the story about the ceiling that fell down on Mr. December’s bed? He wasn’t in it at the time, thank God.) I’m saddened to think of all the fun these children will miss out on, not to mention the sense of accomplishment they would get from doing something difficult and possibly risky. Most of all, I’m saddened to think that it didn’t have to be this way.
We are currently raising children in a culture and a time where any level of danger is unacceptable; where not obsessively baby-proofing your home is seen as foolhardy; where sitting on a park bench and watching as your child attempts a tricky climb, falls, cries, and tries again is tantamount to neglect. We are inundated with “what-ifs”: what if your child is biking to the park alone and falls and gets cut and bleeds and cries? What if he slips on one of the steps and slides right down to the bottom of the basement stairs? What if the baby bangs his head on the corner of the coffee table and gets a bruise?
Well, what if those things happened?
Look, I get that there’s always a freak occurrence that nobody could predict (so why do we try so hard to predict it?) and that we just want our children to be safe. But is that really what we want for our children? Have we been so inundated with the slogan “Safety First!” that we’ve forgotten there are things more important than safety? If “safety first” was really true, nobody would use power tools, or play professional sports, or get into a car and drive somewhere. There is a level at which enjoyment and convenience can, and should, gently nudge safety aside just a little.
The truth is that our children are safer than probably any children at any time or place in human history. Vaccines, trained birth attendants (whether doctors or midwives,) car seats, and the general decline in violent crime have made infant and child mortality so rare that our culture has to think of new dangers to fear, much like how our immune systems supposedly attack allergens because they face no “real” threat from diseases that used to fell healthy people. Bad things just don’t happen to children anymore. If they do, it’s someone’s fault. Someone wasn’t safe enough, wasn’t vigilant enough, wasn’t a good enough caregiver. Someone must be blamed. There is, in effect, no such thing as an “accident” when it comes to children.
But back to my “what if?” question: What if a child bikes alone to the park, falls down and bleeds, and cries? Well, the child won’t cry forever. A passer-by, or another child, or a parent at the park, will offer assistance. More likely, the child will stop crying, get back on the bike (or walk beside it,) and either continue to the park or go home for a band-aid. What if your child slips or trips and falls down the stairs? Well, many of us have done that and lived to tell the tale. So will your child. What if the baby bangs her head on the corner of the coffee table? As I’ve said since I refused to childproof the house for K, “she’ll get hurt, she’ll cry, and she’ll learn not to play near the coffee table.” And in all three circumstances, the child will learn that getting hurt was not the end of the world.
There’s an odd juxtaposition in our culture. On one hand we celebrate the risk-takers, the visionaries, the pioneers. On the other hand, we do our best to scare parents and children away from developing those traits. Do we want risk-takers, or not? Do we want creative thinkers, or not? Do we want our children to grow up, or not? Ah, there’s the question, that last one.
Let’s let our children get hurt. Let’s encourage them to do difficult, challenging, scary things. Let’s give them a gift: the knowledge that an injury or a setback is temporary, and that human beings – ourselves and our children included – have an amazing capacity to heal, recover, and grow. Maybe then the children won’t be scared to get on an ultra-safe trampoline and just enjoy jumping.
In the meantime, wimpy kids, get off the trampoline. It’s for jumping, and my kid wants to jump. And she will.