All three of my boys played football. They started out in a junior league, coached by dads in the community, much like Little League Baseball. As one would expect, attending all their games was a family requirement. If you caught that dash of sarcasm, let me explain. We are a family of mostly girls. Six to be exact, five of whom were bookended by boys, big and small, who loved football. It was hard for us to relate.
My husband was the guy standing by the fence, moving up and down the field with each play while I was that mom sitting in the car. Don’t get me wrong, I do care about supporting my sons. I was just trying to stay warm while listening intently for my kid’s name to be announced over the speakers. Something like, “Chris Robinson in on the tackle.” That was my cue to honk the horn and cheer. It’s no secret within my inner circles that the finer points of the game are totally lost on me. I can sum up the extent of my knowledge of football as: kill the kid with the ball before he gets to the end of the field. Nevertheless, I did pick up on something that, apparently, most parents sitting in the bleachers completely overlooked — the ambulance waiting beside me.
Once it occurred to me that I was sitting there waiting to hear my son’s name announced as “in on the tackle” while an ambulance waited on the sidelines to take my boy to the hospital because of said tackle. What’s wrong with this picture?
We really get this “kids and safety” idea completely twisted, don’t we?
Take, for example, the school in Mercer Island, Washington, that abruptly banned the game of tag. It’s not like some kid got carried off the tag field in an ambulance or anything. According to reports, the new policy caught the parents by surprise; most were completely appalled by the move.
The reason the school gave for banning this type of play is their newly found expectation for student behavior — and of course, student safety. Students are to keep their hands to themselves at all times. The stated, albeit misguided rationale is intended to ensure all students are emotionally and physically safe.
Here’s the thing: while a traditional playground is off limits, the school still endorses and promotes organized sports teams.
What this school doesn’t realize is that they are in no way keeping these children safe, nor are they promoting emotional health. In fact, according to studies, this school’s idea of keeping children safe is doing far more long-term harm by not allowing the children some “risky” playtime.
According to Psychology Today:
We deprive children of free, risky play, ostensibly to protect them from danger, but in the process we set them up for mental breakdowns. Children are designed by nature to teach themselves emotional resilience by playing in risky, emotion-inducing ways. In the long run, we endanger them far more by preventing such play than by allowing it.”
Children are highly motivated to play in risky ways, but they are also very good at knowing their own capacities and avoiding risks they are not ready to take, either physically or emotionally. Our children know far better than we do what they are ready for. When adults pressure or even encourage children to take risks they aren’t ready for, the result may be trauma, not thrill.
Which totally explains why we have adult-directed games that require an ambulance waiting on the sidelines. Children are much more likely to get hurt in a sports activity with adult supervision than on their own, playing something of their own choosing.
Think about it. Under the guidance of adults, children are encouraged–even driven–to push their limits. Adults also tend to hone in on a single skill, like pitching for example, which causes an overuse of particular muscles and joints. How many young men do you know who blew out knees in high school?
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, children ages 5 to 14 account for just under 40 percent of emergency room visits due to injuries in adult-driven sports. An estimated 2 million high school athletes end up with injuries, with 500,000 requiring a doctor’s care and 30,000 winding up in the hospital each year. The scariest statistic I found was that 21 percent of all traumatic brain injuries among children are a result of participation in sports and recreational activities.
As a general rule, children will often push their limits, but stop when it hurts. Their motive for playing is having fun, usually with their friends. Once someone is hurt, the game is over. In organized sports the adults in charge have a wide range of motives with the amusement of the children being pretty far down on the list, if it’s there at all.
What this school has done is not really so different from what many of us as parents do on a daily basis. We squash any attempts at what we as parents deem dangerous–climbing to the highest branch, carrying a pocket knife, riding a bike without hands. Some psychologists believe that if we don’t let our children direct their own thrilling play (under the pretense of keeping them safe) we deprive them of a natural ability to regulate their emotions. Briefly, the evidence is this:
Over the past 60 years we have witnessed, in our culture, a continuous, gradual, but ultimately dramatic decline in children’s opportunities to pay freely, without adult control, and especially in their opportunities to play in risky ways. Over the same 60 years we have also witnessed a continuous, gradual, but ultimately dramatic increase in all sorts of childhood mental disorder, especially emotional disorders.
No good parents wants to see their children take unnecessary risks with their lives or health. But that’s just the thing — the vast majority of the time children don’t do that on their own. It’s more apt to happen under the well-intentioned guidance of the overseeing adult.
Just as children need an abundance of love and guidance, they also need our trust. We have to trust that they have instincts about what they need to learn and grow healthy. Just as they develop and learn to stretch their minds, growing bodies, and imaginations, they also need to be free to actually play.
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