“Americans, I beseech you, it is not as impossible as it seems. We may have an ocean on the east and west, we may have borders on the north and south, but we are not an island; we are in the world. There is no escaping it: we have been born, we are going to die. Americans, I beg you: Recognize! We are already in Savage Park.”
Savage Park, Amy Fusselman
Last fall, I had the wonderful opportunity to visit my twenty-year-old daughter in London. She had been studying there for the better part of two months, and she knew the landscape much better than I did—its shops, its eateries, its routes. When it came time for us to walk the neighborhood near her flat, we found ourselves at a busy intersection. My confident daughter had done nothing to indicate that she couldn’t cross streets or make her way from one corner to another, yet inexplicably—as we stepped into traffic—some kind of parental fear instinct kicked in. I was so unsure of which way to look for oncoming cars, and my orientation was so out of whack, that as my daughter began to cross, I stuck my arm in front of her, across her chest, to stop her from a danger that I came to realize was never there.
So many of us parents have that same instinct to overprotect, to thrust our arms in front of our children and shield them from small or nonexistent hazards. When did we get so fearful? According to Savage Park author Amy Fusselman, our acute sense of dread may be uniquely American. Fusselman’s impetus to write her book with the exceedingly long subtitle of “A meditation on play, space, and risk for Americans who are nervous, distracted, and afraid to die” came from a months-long stay in Japan with her husband, two young sons, and a family friend who lived there. She witnessed in several Japanese neighborhoods playgrounds like Savage Park, where young kids were lighting fires, wielding hammers, and moving wood to build forts and structures. Savage Park was the polar opposite of what Fusselman was accustomed to in America—those grassy, tree-rimmed parks punctuated by colorful play structures with smooth, rounded corners. In Savage Park, parents were relaxed as they watched their kids climb, explore, build, and yes, even ignite.
Says Fusselman, “The idea that we – and our children – are never really ‘safe’ is hard to live with. But the good news is that we also don’t have to live with the opposite idea – that we are always ‘unsafe.’”
I’ve often reflected on how little responsibility many middle and upper class American children have, mostly because we as parents are filled with worry that certain tasks are too risky. It’s just speculation, but my guess is that there are very few thirteen-year-olds who know how to wield a sharp kitchen knife or light the gas barbeque.
I was struck by that same notion again very recently during a week-long visit to Africa, where we saw five-year-olds toting younger siblings securely in slings on their backs and ten-year-olds hoisting large loads of food or hauling buckets of water atop their heads. Okay, so perhaps this is out of pure necessity, but the simple fact is that here in America, we are fearful of letting our kids do things and perhaps even worse, doubtful of their abilities. Most five-year-olds, when given the responsibility to hold a baby, would do just fine. But our Western mindsets see that scenario as quite perilous, and our own fears have stopped us from allowing our children to attempt anything that seems risky.
Kids are capable of so much more than we give them credit for. I read recently that at a few summer camps, the nightly campfires have been discontinued because they were “too dangerous.” With thirty years under my belt at a camp where we have thirty campfires burning at once, I can confirm that even six-year-olds learn to immediately respect fire and follow safety guidelines as reviewed by their counselors. Young kids rise to the occasion and know instinctively to keep themselves safe. I think allowing kids to sit around the campfire, and even letting them add some dry pine needles as it burns down, is a good metaphor for thinking about other risks we can and should allow our kids to take. Yes, there is always a risk involved – but everything in life has some risk. There is an equally important opportunity to master something, to become capable, and to feel accomplished.
When holding a marshmallow stick that’s a bit too short, a camper will quickly learn that a longer stick is better, without any adult guidance. I’ve seen it happen: their hands get too hot, they drop the short stick in the fire, and search the ground for something that will do the job better. We need to let our kids discover more things like this—on their own—without our arms constantly shooting out in front of them.
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Savage Park: A Meditation on Play, Space, and Risk for Americans who are Nervous, Distracted, and Afraid to Die, by Amy Fusselman
5 Worries Parents Should Drop and 5 They Shouldn’t (NPR)
Let your Son Go! (Sunshine Parenting)
Parking your Helicopter (Sunshine Parenting)
15 Books that Inspire my Parenting (Sunshine Parenting) (Check out Free-Range Kids!)