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Why Safety Is Bad for Children

The push for safety is holding our children back.

Earlier this month the Peregian Springs State school, a grammar school in Australia, gained international noteriety by banning cartwheels. To be fair, the safety conscious school didn't actually say that kids cannot cartwheel on school property. Rather, their spokesperson said, "students participating in these activities at the school must do so under the supervision of teachers in an approrpiate, controlled environment where safety equipment such as gym mats are available. " Yes, after properly warming up the children can queue to be spotted on a mat by a qualified supervisor. Playground time at Peregian sounds like an absolute blast, doesn't it?

The impulse to keep children safe is, without question, a well-intended behavior. All reasonable parents and teachers would prefer children be safe rather than injured. A study conducted by Australian researchers showed that 55-60% of the increase in parents driving their kids to school was based on perceptions of risk for children who had previously walked or bicycled. Oddly, statistics reported in the same study show that accidents involving bicycling children are declining (and not simply becuase fewer of them are on the road).

In another study, Catherine Warner looked at "emotional safeguarding" (parents just want their children to be happy). Warner found that middle-class parents, especially, wanted their kids to be intellectually challenged in the classroom but not challenged socially or emotionally. It was as if these parents had a collective blindspot in which they could not recognize that the same confusion, frustration, and doubt that are critical to academic learning might also have a place in social development.

Taken together these two studies are suggestive of the ambivelance many parents have with safety of the physical and psychological variety. We all want our chidlren to be happy, to be smart, to believe in themselves and to be accepted by their peers. But we must come to terms with the fact that failure, hurt feelings, playground gossip, and intellectual struggle are important components of how kids learn, develop social skills and become more effective adults. So what's the alternative? What can parents and teachers do differently?

The answer might be found in another study, conducted by Anita Bundy and her colleagues. The researchers placed loose items around a school playground: cardboard, plastic barrells, hay bales, and car tires. Supervising teachers reported worrying more that the children would get hurt. But they also reported an increase in vigorous play, creative play, and social play and a decrease in aggressive play. Perhaps it is adults who need to take the risk of letting our children face risk.

Dr. Robert Biswas-Diener is a research and trainer. He is fascinated by "comfort addiction" and the way people avoid the difficult aspects of human psychology despite their benefits. He has written about these topics in his new book, co-authored with Dr. Todd Kashdan: The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why being your whole self—not just your “good” self—drives success and fulfillment is available from Amazon , Barnes & Noble , Booksamillion , Powell's or Indie Bound.

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