Passive Restraints & Playgrounds

Everyone knows people aren’t free when they have limited choices but we tend to believe that others are benefited when we do something for their own good. Passive restraints (whether you think they’re a good idea or not) are an apt metaphor for an insurance culture that is willing to reduce the likelihood of a tragedy at the expense of individual freedom to choose unwisely.

Most of us accept some level of passive restraint as part of a civilized society. The notion of a social contract embodies some of these expectations (that I will give up some of my individual rights to make living together safer and more pleasant for everyone). Rather than explore the philosophical traditions upon which our present mindset is built or attempt to identify examples of abuses in our culture or politics locally or globally, I’m interested at this moment in identifying a parenting truth.

We only truly own what we choose. When we explore (as children or adults) a wide range of options for action, experiencing pushback and success, refining our observations and therefore our inner view of the world, we enlarge personal reservoirs of potential action and thought. When we choose based on a personal desire to discover, improve, or collaborate, our experience is paired with lively emotional and social components that give our discoveries exponentially greater power in our lives. Thought (of our own creation) is paired with action and we change.

A growing movement is recognizing the empowering effect of play on growing children, including novel (but nostalgic) playgrounds supplied with corner lot refuse: old tools, building scraps, broken household items, discarded junk. Instead of being supplied with pat play solutions, children are invited to create their own world and they love it, hammering, sawing, and nailing their way to a better understanding of the adult experience. These playgrounds are often (gasp) unsupervised, and anyone could potentially get hurt. Or worse, dirty.

Powerful! But we have yet to question our pattern of segregating children by age, reducing their contact with other age groups who have other life experiences to a single adult at a time who is dealing with far more children than allows much meaningful interaction. Importantly, their periods of play are almost entirely only among people of their same age group, where all are dealing with similar maturation struggles. Time with other-aged children, young single adults, empty nest adults, and the elderly is relegated to after homework, solitary electronic entertainment, and the occasional sports or musical competition. In addition, the pace of childhood (especially with many activities) has increased to the point that meaningful interactions outside of one’s age group are almost nonexistent.

A growing number of adolescents are experiencing unprecedented levels of anxiety. Perhaps we might question our willingness to apply so many passive restraints to childhood for their own good while providing so few stabilizers from which children might choose. Perhaps we might question our focus on controlling what goes into their minds and providing instead a rich cornucopia of learning and experience from which they might build a life.

It’s been said that the work of childhood is play. If the work of parenthood is passing on the values that make us strong individuals and a stable society, perhaps we should broaden our focus from intellectual and physical to emotional and social sources of wisdom. Perhaps we should not only let them get hurt in all of those areas, but encourage them to tell us what they will do when they are.