Now before we get into this, let me just say right up front that I totally endorse wearing all appropriate protective gear when kids are riding bikes, playing sports and engaged in active play.
At the same time, when kids are engaged in open-ended play or on the playground, the occasional bump and scrape is almost unavoidable, and it’s not always a bad thing. Appropriate first aid is important, and in the case of serious injuries, doctors must be consulted, but we can’t protect our kids all the time.
I’m thinking about this because of the death last week of Natasha Richardson. What a tragedy that is—a loss to her family and the theater and movie community. Her death, however, has provoked a new level of hyper-vigilance among some parents about protecting our kids from every possible injury. However, though Richardson’s death is a tragedy, it made the news because a) She’s a movie star and b) It was considered a “freak accident.”
Tragic as it is, and after talking to several moms who were considering curtailing bike and skateboard privileges, it started me thinking–Do you ever see kids with injuries any more? I hardly remember a week as a kid when I didn’t have some sort of bang up. I was a very active kid. Yet when I go into schools or talk to parents, I don’t see any casts or band-aids.
We don’t wish injuries on any of our kids, but these are also the sometimes-inevitable consequences of being kids. I broke an arm falling out of a tree, a hand in a bicycle accident, an ankle jumping off a garage roof. You would think I had no business doing any of these risky things, and you’d be right. Not to mention numerous scrapes, cuts bruises, bites from snakes (non-poisonous), sprains, etc. But my parents scolded me for all of that, so I don’t need to hear more. Moreover, I wasn’t alone. We were constantly getting banged up, and, we succeeded at things more often than not. I climbed the steeple of our church with nary a scratch, being one of the more extreme and, to my adult mind, crazy things that we did. I remember in fifth grade, there were four of us out of a class of 48 in casts at one time.
And I heard, “What on earth were you thinking?” more often than not from my parents. But we had lots of fun. And we learned two things: How to take calculated risks, even if what was “calculated” to us would seem insane to an adult mind, and when to know what our limitations were. (I drew the line at jumping off a 30-foot waterfall, though a couple of my friends did it and were just fine.) And we learned how to take care of each other. My friends knew I didn’t like falling from heights, though I loved to climb (Go figure.), so they didn’t push on the waterfall thing, though they said it was great. Goody. I still don’t regret passing up that experience.
These are important skills that kids need to learn. Do we wish they could never get a bump or a bruise? Of course, but that’s not real life, and kids who are overly protected and watched every second have a hard time separating from their parents and become fearful. What do they do when they are asked to gamble on a dream–from pursuing a career to starting a business? Risk tolerance is a critical skill for healthy development, and it starts with kids pushing their limits physically. It’s also a natural human characteristic–that curiosity about what happens if…
I have a young friend who at 7 is an avid skateboarder. He’s been in casts and bandages from time to time, but he skates even with a sling. He’s a confident, together young man who has a great sense of himself, and while small for his age, has a sense of self that’s truly impressive. I think it’s partially because he’s taken these risks. His parents do the calculating, too, trying to ensure that he has a safe environment to play in. When I got to go off the training ski jump in Park City last summer for a TV shoot, my young friend was incredibly jealous. You have to be 8 to do it. You can bet he’ll be there this year.
If there has been one phrase that has driven my career more than any other, it’s, “Sure, I’ll try that.” It’s an attitude toward life that I believe was engendered and reinforced by doing what today I’d consider crazy things and ending up okay. (A broken arm is okay in that vein, particularly since the dawn of modern medicine.)
So, yes, Richardson’s death is terrible, and I ache for her boys deprived of their mother. I’m not advocating recklessness at all. But we all know that kids will come up with things that adults would never imagine. The best we can do is provide context, attention (without being obsessive), freedom and the safest environment possible. And if we hide out from life and try to protect ourselves from every tragedy, can we really say we’re living?