Dad Notes: The Safety Police

Cowboys & Indians

The author as a politically incorrect child, apparently unable to choose a side.

I read an interesting article at the gym last weekend that resonated with me. Both the artist and the dad part of me liked it, mostly. My wife can tell you that for years I have railed against “the Safety Police.”

I don’t know exactly who the Safety Police are, but apparently they hold positions of influence, because pretty much every playground in America is now coated in rubber, and padded underneath.

The article was about fostering creativity, courage, self-confidence, and problem-solving skills in kids. Hanna Rosin, the author, contends that the current trend of parents scheduling every minute of their child’s lives with closely supervised activities is robbing them of the chance to explore and take risks in life. (See full article here.)

Her article is centered around a visit with her son to something called an “adventure playground” in Wales. Such playgrounds are designed to encourage a “free and permissive atmosphere” with a minimum of adult supervision from the trained adult staff. The idea is to allow kids to experience a sense of danger and risk, and to learn how to deal with these situations themselves. These playgrounds include an area with moveable elements such as tires and wooden shipping palettes. She describes another area where some kids were starting a fire in a metal drum. Part of the playground runs steeply down into a shallow creek, and includes a rope swing, which may or may not get you across.

Stay with me here. I’m not on a campaign to litter our playgrounds with glass shards. I just think it’s a worthwhile discussion.

Rope Swing


I think of my own childhood, which included long, unsupervised hours away from my house and my parents, engaged in creative play. Admittedly, some of my activities with young friends were less than brilliant, but that’s kind of the point. We figured it out and lived to tell about it.

Sand Dune Natl Monument

…also dangerous.

I think of my own kids. How often – regularly, in fact – Mollie and I would be outside somewhere and we would hear the words “Hi Mom!” But these words would sound much farther away than they should’ve, especially coming from overhead. We would look skyward to find our second-born son high in a tree, as high as he could possibly go. (Higher than we were comfortable with.) Of course, as soon as his little brother grew old enough, he was right behind his big brother.

There’s no question that there was very real risk there. But it never seemed quite right to me to tell them, “YOU KIDS GET DOWN FROM THAT TREE RIGHT NOW!” even though Mollie and I wondered out loud to each other if all of our children would make it to adulthood. I guess I’m still not sure whether or not we should’ve forbidden extreme tree climbing. I do remember instructing them to make sure that they always had a firm grip on a strong branch so that they wouldn’t fall.

At one point in our downstairs bathroom, the bathtub contained one turtle, two large toads, and several garter snakes, all found in and around our inner-city yard. (The kids thought it was great that these animals couldn’t escape the tub. Eventually we released them when the bathroom started stinking.) None of these animals were dangerous, but I suppose it still seemed exciting to the kids since a certain percentage of the population is either freaked-out or grossed-out by such creatures. We did instruct the kids to always wash their hands after handling the reptiles because there is a real risk of contracting disease from the salmonella bacteria carried by reptiles.

Rosin quotes early childhood education professor, Ellen Sandseter. She has concluded that children have a sensory need to experience (perceived) danger and excitement. Sandseter has identified 6 categories of risky play, including exploring heights, and exploring on one’s own.

I have to think this must be true of a lot of kids, based on what I’ve seen in myself, in my own kids, in conversation with others, and in watching other families. And I don’t see any reason to ascribe this “need” to our sin nature.

Rosin also cites the research of Kyung-Hee Kim, an educational psychologist who has found that over the past decade American children have become:
“less emotionally expressive, less energetic, less talkative and verbally expressive, less humorous, less imaginative, less unconventional, less lively and passionate, less perceptive, less apt to connect seemingly irrelevant things, less synthesizing, and less likely to see things from a different angle.” The largest drop has been in the measure of “elaboration,” or the ability to take an idea and expand on it in a novel way. Practicing psychologists have also written about the unique identity crisis that this generation faces—a fear of growing up and, in the words of Brooke Donatone, a New York City–based therapist, an inability “to think for themselves.”

Given the context of the article, it seems that Rosin thinks over-protective parenting is the culprit.

What do you think? Are our children over-protected? How do/did you as a parent strike a balance between safety and controlled risk with you kids? How do you avoid being a “helicopter parent”?

At the recent release of my new kids’ book, THE COCKY ROOSTER, I described its underlying theme as “the need for young children to submit to their parent’s loving authority in a broken and sometimes dangerous world.” In my opinion, it is essential for loving parental authority to be in play first before we can responsibly allow our young kids the freedom to explore, and to have their own “lion and bear experiences.” Such experiences will prepare them to go out and face giants someday. But risk is always part of the picture. Even as adults, living a life in submission to God-given authority, and to God Himself, does not equate to a life free of risk. Being under right authority helps us to discern the difference between foolish and worthwhile risks (Prov 10:23.)

I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences…

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
– C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

Long's Peak Summit

My daughter, Sierra, on the summit of Long’s Peak, elevation 14,259 ft.

Next time I’ll share with you a simple game my kids and I used to play, designed to foster “creativity, imagination, synthesizing, and elaboration.”

Grace and peace – Scott

11 thoughts on “Dad Notes: The Safety Police

  1. My son Phil just told me a day ago that Mr Rockefeller or Roosevelt said early last century, “I want a nation of workers, not thinkers.. ” the powers that b took that into account as they developed curriculum for our schools..

  2. Scott,

    Love the thoughts! These sentiments are ones that Eric and I talk over often, as fostering creativity and exploration were important to our parents and our childhoods. We are trying to find creative ways to do that in our city yard. I’d be excited to hear your thoughts! Both Eric and I grew up on lakes with large yards, woods, and trees, so exploring and creating came really easily. There were many adventures to be hand daily! How is this done on a city lot? We have some thoughts, but the more ideas the merrier!


  3. I remember several things about my youth. Ice skating forever at the park and emersed in a good book. And, on really adventuresome days, riding our bikes 30 mi. to the quarry or sneaking downtown to the big city. Since my daughter loves to rock climb and read, and is highly successful, seems like we did well to nurture her into that creative, adventuresome lifestyle. At the same time, my son (28) seems content to still play games on his phone, and let life run it’s course. I agree wholeheartedly with your thoughts, still, I can’t help but wonder, (in my life) what the heck? All this to say – great thought provoking questions. I wish I had more answers. I wish it was that simple, cut and dry. I totally love you and Mollie, your (respective) arts, and your love of God, even if from a distance. Xo.

    • It’s so fun to hear about people’s childhoods!
      I wish I had an answer for you. All I know is that sometimes it’s hard for me to believe that all 5 of our kids came from the same place. But I know they did ’cause I watched ’em come out.

  4. Your article was very meaningful. My childhood was always an adventure. Granted, I had to navigate the constant fear of abuse and bitter, cruel alcoholism and general 1970’s “it’s a family issue, nothing to intervene” about. BUT, that’s another story nit really worth telling. Being the child of an anarchist father, I remember raising chickens in the city, raising pot in the special, warm lighted room in the basement. I also remember the excitement when my dad would peek me up on the way home from school and give me a ride home… Clinging to the wiper blades on the hood. One really fun memory was camping in the Washington mountains, tied (with my friend) with long stretches of rope to the back of the jeep, where the tire mount was. He tore around those gravel roads and it was exhilarating. I caught (and loved deeply) every sort of animal, nurturing many back to health. Lizards, a crow, possums, tadpoles, frogs, snakes, turtles, squirrels, birds and even a groundhog. My father was godless and unethical though. Sometimes I was forced to encounter unnecessary danger, as in: “take this caulking gun out of the store and go sit in the car. I’ll be right there.” I felt fear and unease. Or watching helplessly from the shore of a lake as my dad and his brother raucously drunk on home made moonshine fought and dunked each other under water for too long. Of course they stumbled out and drove me home. Wasted. The worst was in my grandfathers living room gripped with terror as my father and his friend told me to tuck into a tight ball so that they could hurl me across the room to each other. It was fun playing catch with a four year old girl, I guess. My point however is this: I am now fearless. I have been to war. Jumped out of airplanes and fought as a professional boxer. I’m not afraid of much. Not afraid of many people. I shake my head when people instantly kill a spider. I raised my kids very hands free and encouraged autonomy. They have more character for it, I believe. The sanitizer toting moms who soften the world for their little ones are depriving their children of an opportunity to gain a beneficial veneer, I believe.

    • Wow Jody. I wish you had told me all that stuff before I let you babysit my kids 15 years ago…
      Seriously though, thanks for sharing your experiences. I assume we would agree that there is a good balance somewhere between your pot-growing, toddler-tossing dad’s approach and the helicopter parent. As you well know, there really is serious nastiness in the world, and kids are vulnerable and in need of the protection and guidance of parents. At the same time I’ve watched a lot of well-intentioned parents shielding their kids from the consequences of their own choices. It makes parenting a tricky business when our good intentions don’t necessarily produce the results we hope for.

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