Lawyers Shouldn’t Tell Us How to Raise Our Kids

Limiting children’s exposure to risk is causing long-term psychological harm.

Posted Oct 22, 2017

I’m worried we’re letting lawyers tell us how to raise our children. This is not a misguided rant against the judicial system or some cloak and dagger conspiracy theory. It is a conclusion I’ve arrived at after speaking with hundreds of school administrators and being applauded by them for challenging the counsel of legal departments that have overshot their expertise. Sadly, there is growing evidence that our children are being harmed when we fail to provide them with reasonable opportunities for risky play and developmentally appropriate responsibility. So far, the lawyers have refused to listen.

Examples abound, not just in schools but in other public spaces. In Vancouver, Adrian Cook was warned that child protection authorities would seriously consider investigating whether he was a fit parent because he was letting four of his children, ages 7 to 11 ride public transit to school. To be clear, Cook had gone to great lengths to prepare his children, rehearsing the route for two years, and ensuring they were travelling in a group and with a cell phone. There was no history of the children being disruptive on the bus, nor was it a complicated route. One bus. Start to finish.

Child protection workers, though, liberally interpreting a court ruling regarding an 8-year-old who was left at home alone, felt that no child under the age of 10 should be unsupervised in a public space. Not riding their bikes. Not walking to the store. And certainly no 11-year-old should be in a situation where he or she is supervising a younger child. Apparently, in other parts of Canada, like Ontario, the situation is even worse. No child under the age of 16 can be left at home alone.

I can only assume that these arbitrary rules are designed by lawyers to minimize harm to children. But do they? It’s time we stopped letting lawyers raise our children and started trusting parents, grandparents, and maybe even specialists in child development to help us understand what children really need.

I was recently discussing this problem with a colleague, Brandy Tanenbaum who works with the Office for Injury Prevention at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto. She’s worried about what she calls the “safety creep." Lawyers, in her experience, seek as much safety as possible rather than as much safety as necessary. When we overprotect, we forget that all that bubblewrapping that we’ve smothered children in is actually toxic to their psychosocial wellbeing. Like other threats to our children that surprise us when they’re found to be harmful (think early models of baby cribs with slats set too far apart, or badly designed car seats and window blinds), we need to rethink whether children are as safe as we think they are. Overprotective parenting, along with overprotective schools and communities may just be the new ‘carcinogen’ creating a psychologically toxic environment for our children during childhood.

From a legal standpoint, when we let lawyers tell us what is reasonable for our children to experience, we fail to account for the secondary harms that are likely to follow when our efforts to protect go too far. Lawyers, I’m told, don’t care about secondary harms. Neither they nor judges seem to understand the collective harm they are doing to the health of our children. Their focus is instead on the specific case before them. It’s not their worry if judgements from the bench, or poor interpretations of those judgements, are creating a spike in anxiety disorders, hospitalizations and a potential generation of children unable to succeed unless coddled. If my language is strong it’s because individual school administrators and parents feel powerless to resist the courts and keep kids appropriately challenged when those same courts award huge settlements to the families of children harmed doing the things we reasonably want our children to do. Like riding buses. I say cap the settlements (and  lawyers' commissions) and let children enjoy the things children need to develop lifelong resilience.

Let’s be clear. There are two distinctly different threats to our children. The first are preventable dangers, like a fall from poorly designed, poorly installed, or poorly supervised equipment in a school gymnasium. A fall like that, however, is something very different from a fall experienced by a child while climbing a tree on a school playground during a period of self-directed play at recess. Seeking to prevent the first is a responsible act by an enlightened society. Seeking to prevent the latter has serious consequences to every child’s health and should never become the focus of litigation.

Today’s lawyers who are advising schools and municipalities seem to have completely misunderstood the value of risky play and failed to distinguish between what's irresponsible and what's in our children's collective best interest. To my mind, and other child developmentalists, there are more benefits for society as a whole when children climb trees than if we remove such activities from their lives altogether. After all, if children stopped climbing trees, would they feel comfortable with heights? Would they develop a healthy sense of personal agency? Would they be inspired to push their limits and explore their world? Would they understand courage? Would they develop the physical literacy that comes from mastering many different situations and movements with their bodies? The list is long. The consequences are apparent. Spikes in anxiety disorders and related mental health problems, as well as increasing numbers of children in post-secondary institutions who are disabled by their fears, are an emerging threat we need to better understand. I fear the roots of that problem are to be found in parenting practices and the way schools and communities structure children’s environments.

Human development needs a few bumps and bruises. It’s how we learn and grow. Our institutions owe children those opportunities to fail and, yes, even fall. While we might want to prevent every tragedy, the secondary harms that are resulting tell us we have gone much too far.

I worry about a generation that has been taught the world is always dangerous. Will they be able to make sound political judgements and put in power reasonable leaders who know when to fight and when to negotiate? Or will they be susceptible to demagogues that convince them they are always in danger, even when they’re not? Take away our children’s right to play, and to reasonable, age-appropriate risk, and the results could be bad for all of us. It would be nice if the lawyers could see the harm they’re doing before it’s too late.