The Value of Minor Risks — By Bart Theriot

Returning to school after the lockdown may have added a new level of parent anxiety to those first few weeks. However, we cannot lay the full blame at the feet of COVID-19. The fact is that parent supervision has drastically increased over the last 40 years and the focus upon “safe” play has amplified. As a result, pandemic or not, children spend less time outdoors, less time alone and are taking fewer minor risks. For the purposes of this article, let’s define “minor risk” as a loosely calculated action or decision that might result in discomfort, anger, disappointment, embarassment, fear, sadness, pain or non-life-threatening physical injury.  If any of that falls outside of your parenting definition of “minor”, this article is an important read for you, because the simple risks of childhood are nothing compared to the adult risks of the future.

Today’s playgrounds are a good place to begin the discussion, especially since they have evolved to match the standards of the time. In today’s neighborhood and school playgrounds, each piece of equipment is carefully designed to be used within narrow parameters, minimizing risk, maximizing safety and mitigating legal action.  However, if you spend enough time on any playground, you’ll usually find the children most engaged are those that have invented their own use for the equipment. It is for the same reasons that children can so easily have more fun with the box than the toy inside it.  When children invent play, the rules are theirs. The risks are unknown, but low, and the possibilities are limited only by the child’s creativity and perhaps the laws of physics.

I was fortunate to grow up with one of those amazing wooden playground castle sets in my elementary school.  It was built when I was in 5th grade, so my peers and I were the pioneers of this new, but relatively brief iteration of playground design.  I probably still have some deeply embedded splinters from those days working their way through my body as we speak, but I’m certain I enjoyed every bit of how they got there.

Sure, it was a castle.  Every child loves a castle and we all played knights and dragons in the beginning. There were also swings, balance beams, jungle gym bars, rings, climbing rope, bridges, ladders, tractor tires and slides. Initially, we used them all as the owner’s manual suggested.  Eventually, though, probably within the first week, someone invented a game of tag where the only rule was that you could not touch the gravel.  The image in this post is pretty close to the exact model of the playground at my school.  Every day during recess, each one of those spires would have at least one child precariously perched atop it like clumsy, dusty, sweaty little gargoyles surveying our world from above.

Be honest, would you let your child do that today?  If so, would you be able to do so without the obligatory warning to “be careful!” or “pay attention!”?  What would you think of a teacher who allowed students to play this way?  Granted, I’m sure we weren’t specifically permitted to do it back then either and our behavior resulted in more than a few trips to the school clinic, but I like to think that the teachers finally realized the actual risks were minor and necessary experiences in our development. By stark comparison, two years ago, my son’s middle school teachers temporarily outlawed running on the grass during their 10 minute post-lunch recess because of “safety concerns.”

This is just further proof that definition of “minor risk” will differ widely from parent to parent and the thing is, you probably don’t even know which actions may fall within or outside of your own tolerance level until you see them.   For example, my 10 year old son recently described a scenario where he and a friend used an 8 foot 2X6 board to create a see-saw and then used it to catapult him into a tree.  He had thought that he would fly through the air and grab onto the trunk of the tree like some kind of flying monkey.  It did not turn out as he planned.  Scrapes and bruises were sustained.  Presumably lessons were learned.

Everytime we played that game of playground tag, we learned how to make quick assessments of risk. I learned far more from the times I got it wrong than when I got it right. Every scrape and bruise offered its own reminder of the lesson for days and weeks after. The near misses became legend, shared around the school. Through a combination of the two, I also learned the difference between being lucky and being smart. All that practice has helped me learn how, when and whether to rely on either side of that spectrum as an adult.

Minor risks aren’t just physical, though. They’re emotional, too. In fact, in an average trip to the playground, mom and dad are far more likely to step in to correct bad or unfriendly behavior than to prevent physical harm. Although some things have changed on that playground, children behaving unkindly toward each other is not a new idea. Even more problematic is that, as opposed to those largely unavoidable physical injuries, parents actually do have the power to help children avoid emotional discomfort. However, that may not be such a good thing. Let’s consider a page from my own history.

My first name “Bart” rhymes with more words than a child’s mind can possibly hold. Most of those words are dirty. At least that’s what it seemed like 40 years ago.  From somewhere around age 4 through 12, this was the primary route by which insults came my way.  Entire poems were created. It was uncanny, in that people I had never met before living hundreds of miles away from each other somehow knew the exact same rhymes.  I was called “Bart the fart” so often that it seemed like a nation-wide consipiracy. Admit it, even you just chuckled at that one.

It will come as no surprise that this happened almost exclusively when there were no adults around to hear it. So unless I wanted to spend my life within 10 feet of the nearest adult, there was no escaping it.  I complained to my mother for burdening me with the most rhymable name in history, but I figured out pretty quickly that the only one who was going to solve this problem was me.  So I devoted myself to building an arsenal of rhymes for every name I could think of and commited them to memory.  I recall being quite proud of “Matthew – Bathroom.”  Unfortunately, in practice, that one didn’t turn out as I had hoped. It was actually one of the few exchanges that ended in a 3rd grade physical scuffle. That outcome now seems obvious looking at it in writing…with a 47 year old brain.  Success in other name-calling battles was marginal at best. In the end, it was the Simpsons that saved me.  It wasn’t the perfect solution but I certainly preferred being compared to a yellow, semi-cool cartoon character. Apparently television images resonate in the childish mind more effectively than limericks. For adults as well (mostly men), since I still hear that comparison every now and then when I tell people my name.

In my youth, there were a few repeat offenders who, by today’s parenting standards, would probably be labeled bullies. If not the children themselves, then their tactics would surely be considered bullying. Sometimes it was an entire group of children all chanting the same thing. Almost none of them were bullies. It takes a lot of trial and error for some children to figure out how (and how not) to be a friend. We shouldn’t be so quick to judge their mistakes, even when they are repeated. Regardless, no parent would want to see their child struggle through this experience.  A key difference in today’s world is that most parents can and will go to great lengths to help their child avoid even the risk of this kind of discomfort. This is a disservice to both parent and child. Rather than preventing them, parents should focus upon making sure their children learn from these experiences.

In the year 2021, children hear dozens of little adult-provided instructions, corrections and tips in an average day, not to mention “don’t, no and stop” more than a few times. All designed to avoid risk. Many have learned to simply ignore the warnings. Whether it makes a difference in the moment may be subjective to the parent, but it all adds up to an unavoidable sense for children that adults are never too far away to intervene. Children come to unwittingly depend on this invisible safety net and it is not hard to see how this could affect them later in life. In fact, in an eye-opening book called iGen author, Dr. Jean Twenge, shows how today’s adolescents are delaying their efforts to join the adult world of independence compared to previous generations. Unfortunately, rather than helping the child develop skills that will lead them to an independent life, most of the time unnecessary parent interventions merely kick the can down the road a ways.

Obviously, I didn’t enjoy all these exchanges back in my youth, but I can see how the experiences shaped me in some positive ways as an adult. Even back then, I knew there were lessons to be learned. Beyond simply recognizing that people will be unkind in this world. I remember my parents walking me through the logic of what was really going on in these moments and how I might adapt my way of thinking to perservere.  I’ve done the same for my children over the years and I hope their experience will allow them to empower their children some day as well. It isn’t difficult to support your child through this kind of difficulty, especially when you’ve got first-hand experience. The toughest part is trusting that your child is prepared and letting them struggle through the moments.

That may prove to be too much for some parents, who seek to stop these experiencese before they start. In that case, take baby steps. Just make sure the steps put your child in the lead rather than inserting yourself too heavily into the situation. Give support and step back. Fortunately for everyone, with a child’s imagination and view of the world, there are still places where the script is not yet written and the options still feel unlimited. Where the risks are clear and instead of being feared, they are the reason to be there in the first place. The only way to ensure your child finds them is to leave him or her alone every now and then. The old wooden playground was fantastic, but we could easily have acheived the same feelings of freedom and excitement in an open field or, even better, in the woods. Anywhere the adults weren’t. Those places are rapidly disappearing -largeley through the efforts of adults. Whether parents intend it or not, children are losing the desire to “get away” from parents just as our instincts seem to be moving in the opposite direction. 

What can be done? Montessori teacher will tell you that the most formative steps toward thoughtful parenting and adult/child partnership rarely involve action. This is certainly the case in encouraging minor risks and independent play. A collective change of mindset is needed and the best actions will likely follow. We must consciously work toward mentally and emotionally reversing our dimminishing tollerance for the consequences of minor risk. That means something slightly different for each of us. However, it could be as simple as taking some time to sit down and consider our own biases and concerns and then see which ones we can move out of the “unacceptable” category. From there, we should encourage and even create opportunities for our children to explore these risks in a way that is comfortable for us without putting our hands on the steering wheel.