Playing it safe

kids on a wagon

When I was a kid, mothers turned their children loose in the morning and commanded: “Go outside and play, and don’t come home ‘til supper!”

I found plenty to keep me busy.

Riding down a hill on my bicycle — hands flying in the air, feet clamped on the handlebars — was great fun. Sitting on the handlebars with my older sister doing the pedaling was even more fun!

Because I lived in a small town in Minnesota, and we had a 5-acre yard that had once been a farmer’s grove, many trees there were perfect for climbing. On a warm summer day, my friend Janet and I would be scaling the elm behind our house or one of a pair of crabapple trees.

Climbing and biking were important to me because I was a total washout at team games, feeling the sting of always being chosen last. Yet my favorite activities were fraught with the danger of a serious fall. In the ’40s and early ’50s, no precautions were taken (helmets were unheard of). We simply went out and did these things — and worse.

Our playground slippery slides were high up and lacked guard rails. Winter saw us lying on our stomachs on a Flexible Flyer sled, zooming headfirst down snow-covered hills.

Not surprisingly, boys seemed to take more chances than girls. I remember one who built a “chug,” a hot-rod-looking vehicle sans brakes that could send you careening down a steep hill with no way to stop. Another boy and his twin brother invented “rockets” that flew skyward and loudly exploded, terrifying our neighborhood. (They both went on to become engineers!). One kid spent hours playing on the roof of his family’s garage.

Hunting was huge in my part of Minnesota. Two guys who were players on our football team would go into the countryside and shoot tin cans with their dads’ hunting rifles for target practice to reduce pre-game tension. And some really nasty little boys played with slingshots.

My folks worried about us, of course. I was continually warned to be careful: “Grab hold of strong branches that won’t break when you climb trees.” “Stop being a daredevil with your bike, or we’ll take it away.”

But I wasn’t forbidden to do these unsafe activities. Even the folks of the neighbor kid who played on the garage roof seemed unconcerned, saying, “He’ll come down when he gets tired of being up there.”

My parents and their peers had weathered the Great Depression. Their lives had been filled with danger and risk. They raised their children with the understanding that things could, one way or another, go wrong, and problems may arise that they expected us to solve.

And so I learned just how far I could climb up a tree and still get back down safely. I came to realize the bicycle antics could be performed only on dry pavement and if I wanted the thrill of the tall slippery metal slide, I’d better wear heavy pants to protect from a butt burn sliding down.

Perhaps my parents were too lenient. But I wonder if some of the accidents that inevitably occurred and the pain and stitches that resulted were actually beneficial. They were toughening me for the bumpy road of life that lie ahead.

Modern parenting seems to have turned to the opposite extreme. Many parents today limit their kids’ unsupervised outdoor play, fearing they might hurt themselves. Some schools have even abandoned the classic schoolyard game of dodgeball.

And parents are accommodating their children’s fears: The child who is afraid of riding the school bus is driven to school rather than given the opportunity to learn to overcome the fear.

An article that appeared in the May 2020 issue of The Atlantic, “The Anxious Child, and the Crisis of Modern Parenting,” reports on the rise of anxiety and depression in children who are overwhelmed by the here and now. The article suggests that modern parents who swoop in and shelter kids from harm and distress — thereby eliminating their anxiety — are doing their kids a disservice. Anxiety is a universal and necessary response to stress. It’s something children must actually experience and learn to tolerate in order to be prepared to deal with it later in life.

No one, of course, wants children to be harmed in their play. And I’m well aware of the dangers facing them in today’s uncertain world that are radically different from ours. But is too much being done in the name of safety? Are children being overprotected, leading to the issues described in the article?

Maybe our way had some merit after all.

Carol Hall lives in Woodbury. She’s a longtime freelance writer, a University of Minnesota graduate and a former Northwest Airlines stewardess.