Saturday, September 15, 2007

Safe and Sorry

It’s the mid 90s when a child at a North Vancouver school climbs up a tree, falls out of it, hits her head and dies.
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.
The talk centers on how high they should let the kids climb. Maybe the rule will be that you’d have to show you can climb a tree well. Or maybe you can only climb so high. Perhaps only teenagers can climb up to the top. Or maybe a staff person can be there.
But the debate goes no further. Enter another staff member with this announcement; all public schools in the district have banned tree climbing from now on out of concern for that tragedy. Discussion closed.
Matt Hern, was one of the key players at that democratic school. A lecturer, director of Vancouver’s Purple Thistle Centre (an alternative to school) and an author, he says it was this incident that lead him to write his latest book Watch Yourself; why safe isn’t always better.

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.
For we who live in what some regard as ‘a culture of fear,’ where extreme measures are taken and much is sacrificed in the name of security and safety it’s sacrilegious to say as Hern does that this default response is “very wrong and insidious and it’s just not true. It’s not worth it.”

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.
“The discourse around safety has begun to trump all kinds of ethical and political decisions,” says Hern. “Oh it’s about safety? Okay. Oh there’s a risk involved? Never mind then,” Hern mimics the common knee jerk response.
To Hern, this attitude is a sort of cop out; it’s lazy, and in its own way dangerous.
“And it’s driven by all kinds of discourses- overwhelmingly by discourses around liability, around public fear and also just straight up parental and community fears of kids getting hurt.”
Often, as Hern points out, these are unreasonable fears that build up on each other into a kind of frenzy.
I couldn’t agree more. I take a quick pause while typing this to check my inbox and there is a flagged e mail marked ‘urgent’ from a friend; she’s forwarded me a security alert about the latest theft technology-bump keys. Are your door locks safe? She’s already made arrangements to get all her locks changed.
Just this afternoon, walking to the bus stop with my daughter after her violin lesson, I am stopped by two reporters carrying a heavy camera and microphone. “Hi. We’re doing a feature on safety and security. We’d like to know if you feel your child is being supervised enough at school?”
“Sorry. Can’t help you. My child is home-educated,” I reply.
“Oh, was that the reason you decided to homeschool?”
No where is fear exhibited more then when it comes to our children. Fear for our children permeates the very air we breathe in, our very consciousness.
We’ll do anything to protect them from dangers real or imagined; so much so that in the end we might be depriving them of ‘scope for imagination,’ (to borrow a well loved phrase from Anne of Green Gables), and the space necessary for development towards maturity.
It’s got to the point where we actually expect bad things to happen. Take something as essential as a place to play in- the park.
“Look at what’s happening to all the parks,” my daughter wails. “They’ve taken all the good stuff out and now they’re all babyish. All the challenge and excitement is gone. They’re boring!!”

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.
What do they do? They leveled the land, built a couple of mounds and “put up a plaque saying no ball playing and nobody ever went there anymore.”
What’s worse than your child getting abducted or dying? “Nothing,” says Hern who admits that he would never allow his 11 year old daughter to walk home alone from school as he did when he was her age and even younger, although by his own judgment, she is “far more savvy and competent then I was.”

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.
Because what’s a good childhood? Hern has a ready reply; “One where kids can ride horses and climb trees. Do some kids get hurt? Yep. That’s the way it is.”

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.
You want kids to learn for themselves and make decisions, but it doesn’t mean ‘carte blanche’ either warns Hern. “Obviously, you’re not going to let you kid wander out in traffic to learn about the power of cars. Parents and mentors have their roles too.”

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?”
As it is, parents (and schools) have taken on a managerial role, “as if kids were stock portfolio; where we begin to pick and choose the right choices, what options the best possibility for success,” Hern observes, “and I think it leads us all kinds’ inhumane ways to think about our kids. They are enigmatic and weird yet human- we’ve got to be able to think about kids as people that are human in and to themselves.”
In conclusion, what Hern offers is the proposition that we should never let safety trump ethical decision making- it should be part of it but never the thing that always wins. Hern’s advice is that instead of looking at safety as an unassailable good we need to be looking at it as one more factor in our decision making.
He suggests that we keep this difficult conversation open and on-going at all levels; “we need to talk about it and say the thing that nobody wants to hear; that the safe choice is not the right choice all the time. It rarely is.”


::::wifemothermaniac:::: said...

I agree, things are getting excessive in the name of safety! I see so many kids whose parents won't let them do anything that might result in them getting slightly hurt or dirty, so much fear. On the other hand, there are some important improvements like the back to sleep campaign and car seat regulations that have saved thousands of lives, but this safety thing has definitely gone to far.

Came here through Unschooling_Canada (I'm new there) and I didn't know about this radio program, I'm going to go check it out, I'm a big fan of radio in general.

Anonymous said...

I've found this in my own family, my husband. When the boys are outside, he expects them to be in ear shot so he can hear if they are in trouble. I keep telling tem to go adventuring but they are so afraid of making daddy mad that they won't. Now they don't want to go outside at all! What kind of childhood are they having if they can't even feel safe plying in their own yard.

My eldest boy, when he was at school years ago, broke his finger playing basketball. Noone at the school called us to tell us and noone even told the principle! I was more angry that they didn't tell us and had to find out hours later when he got home from school. They made him stay in class!!! And they wonder why people sue schools. I just told him that he should be more careful and shrugged it off. He won't even TOUCH a basketball now and he was good. Now he's deprived of something he loved because he's afraid of getting hurt. We are raising a generation of "fraidy cats".

rfs said...

@i'mtakinganap-that is so rotten-what happened to your son and how he has since deprived himself of what he loves for fear of getting hurt. Perhaps a gradual increase of activities that challenge his risk taking ability will yield positive results-you know, bit by bit encourage him to discover his strengths etc.

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