One of the places I spoke at on my recent trip was Lebensgarten, an ecovillage in Steyersberg, Germany. This is one of the earliest centers of the modern permaculture movement, but what impressed me the most was the children I saw playing, unsupervised, outside. I suppose this shouldn’t be that impressive — after all, in traditional contexts unsupervised play is the norm.
Constant supervision is harmful for a child’s development, because it signals to them: “You are not worthy of trust.” We see what happens when, having internalized that message, they become teenagers and enact the very untrustworthiness with which we have programmed them.
In the United States though, huge social and even legal pressure demands that children be constantly supervised. I keep reading news stories of parents who are arrested for child endangerment because their children went to the playground themselves, got on a bus themselves, etc. Sometimes it seems that mere supervision isn’t enough. I’ve attached a picture of our two-year-old, Cary, playing on a jungle gym without any hovering hands ready to catch him — something that sometimes seems to upset other parents at the playground.
We hope to instill in Cary the self-confidence that comes when his parents judge him capable of making decisions and recognizing risks. We also think it important that he be allowed to make mistakes and feel the natural consequences. Over-protected children learn that the only consequences to be feared are those imposed by authority (i.e. getting in trouble). That works for a while, until they become teenagers and realize that parental consequences are easily avoided (by deceiving their parents). Then, having internalized the idea that these are the ONLY consequences to be feared, they act as if nothing they do could have any consequences. That is how over-protection gives birth to recklessness.
I suppose it might be imprudent to say this to thousands of people on Facebook, but I often encourage my ten-year-old son Philip to roam with his friends through the neighborhood (and have for several years). This was entirely normal when I was a child — we’d wander for miles. That today this is considered a crime bespeaks the rising tide of fear that grips my country. “Safety first,” the saying goes. Really though? Is that our highest value? Is it unquestionable that safety should trump freedom, fun, or adventure?
Yes, Cary could quite easily fall off the jungle gym and suffer permanent injury. Philip could get hurt, molested, or kidnapped. Such things happen. The world is not safe. It would be much safer to keep them inside all the time, safely living a virtual life in front of screens. These provide the substitute adventures children crave when the real thing is unavailable.
Herein lies yet another form of insidious programming: to abide in a virtual world where the consequences of our actions are virtual as well. How convenient for the status quo, if our resistance is safely contained in the Internet, if we are conditioned to think 3-D public space is off limits except with the permission and supervision of authority. We feel then that it is not OUR space. That is why I thought the basic meme of Occupy was so significant: it challenged a very deep programming.
The mantra “safety first” reflects a society that is addicted to control and bereft of its sense of purpose. Transposed onto politics, it appears as the security state enslaved to an irrational and hyperbolic fear of terrorism, and a compulsion to “supervise” the world through electronic surveillance.
On any level, from the personal to the political, the fixation on safety makes sense only in disconnection from purpose. A person in touch with her purpose puts her gifts in service to that, and doesn’t act is if the most important thing in life were merely to survive. In the same vein, a nation in service to the planet will not be fixated on national security.
The playgrounds I often see in my country, with their hovering parents, make me nostalgic for the lost scenes of my childhood: boys and girls playing jump rope or cops-and-robbers, riding bikes far and wide… It feels gratifying to see these scenes reenacted at a place like Lebensgarten. It reminds me that I am not crazy for wanting to raise my children in trust.