At the same moment, staff at an alternative democratic school in the same district is having a discussion about tree climbing because some of the kids are climbing way up and the staff is getting nervous.
If you look at it from the perspective of the school board as Hern points out, it’s obvious that they can’t afford to get sued. On a deeper, more emotional level there’s the general view that ‘it’s all worth it if not another family has to go through this.’ It’s a view we’ve come to accept without challenge, no questions asked. But it’s a view that might be to our detriment.
Hern acknowledges that it’s a “terrible and difficult thing to say-to have to look at the family of that young girl and have to say that it’s worth it to let kids climb trees,” but the concern is that banning tree climbing is just another example of a cultural attitude towards a difficult problem that requires examining in far more depth.
Why? Because we’re talking about a phenomena that is seeping into every aspect of the way we make decisions.
Whether it’s got to do with neurotically installing surveillance cameras at every down town street corner or whether it’s about bombing Afghanistan or Iraq so that we can feel safe-let’s do it.
A song by singer-song writer Bob Snider comes to mind. The song is essentially about a child having a fantastic place to grow up in- crab apple trees, raspberry bushes, a creek, robin eggs and salamanders to investigate and study, an abandoned shack, hills to roll about in.
We know abduction is “over rated and that our level of fear doesn’t equate to the fact that in Canada, 3 kids a year get abducted,” Hern comments. Our fear is exaggerated.
It’s a distorted view that gets presented and that’s largely the fault of the media- ever ready to drum up sensationalism and how dangerous it is out there.
Hern refers to his home town where currently, there’s a tremendous push called ‘Project Civil Society’ to clean up the down town and the talk is centered on how dangerous the city has become.
The argument isn’t about there are too many poor people. Rather it’s about the city looking bad. Spitting and panhandling; “But if you look at every single statistic from violent crime to youth crime, to property crime all are down massively. In the same way we know the fear of abduction is overrated, still it’s in the foreground of our minds.”
Hern shares a personal experience; while at a summer horse camp, his daughter fell of a horse and broke her arm. What does that mean? he questions. Does that mean that no one should ever ride that horse again? Does that mean that I should sue them for not taking proper care?
The fact is “stuff happens. It’s part of life. Now would I be saying the same thing if she had fallen off and got brain injury and can’t feed herself. Would I be so sanguine then? Even if my kid had died, hopefully I would have the grace to not say that little girls should stop riding horses.”
It’s when we begin to reduce life to this “one big algorithm where it’s worth it or not,” as Hern puts it, that we get into a whole lot of trouble; distortions begin to arise when we talk about ethical or political decisions about what’s a good life.
“And when we begin to put it in that kind of catastrophic format, everything begins to tighten and narrow and of course nothing is worth it,” Hern reflects. “That’s not the place to make decisions. We have to be making ethical decisions first.”
We can’t allow safety discourses to over run all our rationality and all our ethical thinking.
If we think back to our own childhoods, many of us will agree that we actively sought out challenging situations for ourselves; if there weren’t any, we’d create them. We would dare and double dare each other, we would go exploring, dig for buried treasure, seek the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, rescue the prisoner from the dragon’s lair.
Our favorite books were about children on exciting adventures, testing their mettle, overcoming adversary. Excited by their bravery, we’d try to emulate our most admired characters. Who would want less for their own children?
If the idea is to raise our children to be responsible adults, risk-takers (that’s almost become a dirty word now) then they are going to require a lot more room in which to practice responsibility, “because when there are so many rules the adventure becomes breaking the rules not the adventure itself,” observes Hern. “And the result is kids end up with such a tiny space that their capacity for self reliance is completely muted.”
If kids don’t have opportunities to play more freely, if they aren’t allowed to explore and test their own limits to test the limits of their physicality, “they are never going to be able to do develop those capacities for making good decisions; and ironically the kind of decisions that they can keep themselves from harm more or less,” adds Hern.
We could, as Hern does, extrapolate the larger ideas about learning. Children have got to be able to explore different fields, delve into different areas of interest, begin to learn what they like or don’t like, how they thrive. They need to be able to do that themselves.
More importantly, “it’s recognizing that we are slowing down our kids at an incredibly quick rate. It means that we should be looking really carefully at the restrictions we place on our kids and asking why?”