Youth Services Law

Too Much Safety Puts Kids at Risk

Bubblewrapp GirlA growing body of research argues that it is possible to keep kids too safe. As the New York Times recently noted about safety-first playgrounds, “Even if children do suffer fewer physical injuries – and the evidence for that is debatable – the critics say that these playgrounds may stunt emotional development, leaving children with anxieties and fears that are ultimately worse than a broken bone.” One safety expert, Joe Frost, has said that adults mistakenly believe “that children must somehow be sheltered from all risks of injury. In the real world, life is filled with risks—financial, physical, emotional, social—and reasonable risks are essential for children’s healthy development.”

The process, according to Dan Kindlon, a child psychologist and Harvard lecturer, is similar to how a child’s immune system develops. “You have to be exposed to pathogens, or your body won’t know how to respond to an attack. Kids also need exposure to discomfort, failure, and struggle.” Without that low-level exposure at early ages, researcher Chris Segrin notes, children have lower coping skills and “an exaggerated sense of entitlement . . . which is a near lethal combination of personality traits."

We cannot, and should not, avoid the reality that some element of risk is essential to helping children overcome any fears they may have. When children gradually expose themselves to more risks, such as climbing higher in a tree, say researchers, they are using the same techniques that therapists use to help adults conquer phobias. Those same researchers said, ""[I]t is suggested that we may observe an increased neuroticism or psychopathology in society if children are hindered from partaking in age adequate risky play." In other words, if children don’t face those risks and gradually move upward, they will always be trapped within their fears.

Of course, as with immunizations, we do not want to expose children to high risks before they have the ability to handle them. The next question, and the subject of my next post, is how to let children test their limits while avoiding serious danger.

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