protecting our kidsThe New York Times recently ran an article bemoaning the ever increasing focus on safety at our nation’s playgrounds. Today, you rarely see monkey bars and tire swings. And playground surfaces feel like walking on a giant sponge. Tall, fast slides have shrunk, leveled out, and slowed down. Signs warn parents everywhere about potential dangers.

But this emphasis doesn’t stop at playgrounds. When is the last time you drove by a school bus stop and saw only children? You’re just as likely to see more parents and caretakers than children waiting for the bus. Newspapers run articles all of the time that warn of potential dangers to kids. It seems that the media can’t get enough of these stories.

Therefore, parents rarely let their kids out of sight to play with other kids. They worry if their children walk on their own to a neighbor’s home a block away, perhaps some sexual predator will swoop them away like happened to Amy Duggard and Elizabeth Smart. And then there was the more recent murder and dismembering of eight-year-old Leiby Kletzky in New York City. The devastated parents had let their son walk home from day camp through a relatively safe neighborhood. Indeed, all of these worries about kids’ safety are completely legitimate.

However, there’s a downside to overly protecting kids. For example, super safe playgrounds have a way of becoming a bit boring. Furthermore, they don’t encourage kids to challenge themselves by taking a few risks. Rather, kids actually learn to avoid risks and hear a stream of messages about the dangerousness of the world at large.

Interestingly, evidence suggests that children today demonstrate levels of anxiety that are similar to the levels reported by kids who were hospitalized for emotional problems in the 1950’s. Kids are more insecure and afflicted with emotional difficulties of all sorts than when we actually provided less focus on safety. It’s quite possible that by emphasizing risks and encouraging kids to avoid them, that we’ve been inadvertently fostering the development of anxiety and fear. After all, most effective treatments for anxiety involve gradually exposing sufferers to the things they fear. And, in fact, exposure based techniques mean that people must deal with small amounts of actual risk in the process.

So, obviously, we’d be better off not worrying about our kids’ safety. Hmm, maybe that’s not a good idea either. The bottom line is that striking the right balance of risk taking poses a real challenge for parents today. Amid all of the warnings and cautions bombarding them in the media, many parents struggle to allow their kids to do anything risky at all.

Yet, no matter what you do, the world has inherent risks. Neither kids nor adults can be 100% insulated from danger. Life itself is a road filled with potholes. Best teach your kids to avoid them when possible but be prepared for a few dips and bumps. In other words, give your kids room to breathe and grow while protecting them from the most likely sources of harm.

Photo by Ozan Kilic, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.