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Let Them Eat Dirt


Apr 7 2014
Undoing the guilt, delusion, and obsession of today’s parents.

Last year, I took my 6-year-old to a nearby playground, one of the old-fashioned kind. No primary-colored plastic structures or bouncy rubber mats, it was all wood splinters and warped tire swings. Rickety ladders and fraying ropes lead to dark tunnels, inaccessible to anyone over four feet tall.

Most parents I know hate it. Our kids love it.

In this month's Atlantic, Hanna Rosin explores the potential virtues of such risky old playgrounds. She describes one extreme playground in Wales where children roll tires into a creek and build fires in a tin drum, all the while learning creative play and cause-and-effect. Rosin contrasts this to how "safe" playgrounds—with their predictably cushioned surfaces and sleek equipment—fail to challenge children, and, ultimately, discourage resilience.

Who doesn't want bold, creative, and confident kids? But, as they say, it's all fun and games until someone gets hurt.

That day last year, my son lost his grip on a zip-line, dropped a few feet onto packed dirt, and broke his arm. We both cried. He cried right then and there. I cried later, after we had been to the pediatrician and the orthopedist, after they wrapped his arm in a lime green cast and he sat on the couch, holding it very still. I cried because my precious little boy was broken. And because maybe I had failed him.

At the moment he broke his arm, I was out of sight. I wasn't taking pictures of him with my phone or cheering for him. I wasn't waiting to catch him. I didn't hear him in the seconds he dangled. I didn't even pick him up when he fell. Instead, he came and found me, sitting on a bench, reading (wait for it) The Atlantic.

"Failure to supervise has become, in fact, synonymous with failure to parent," writes Rosin. "Actions that would have been considered paranoid in the '70s—walking third-graders to school, forbidding your kid to play ball in the street, going down the slide with your child in your lap—are now routine. In fact, they are the markers of good, responsible parenting." Letting your first-grader break his arm on a dicey playground while you read a magazine? Epic mom fail.

So, I cried over that little arm wrapped tight and signed in Sharpie by his envious—envious!—brothers. The playground should have been safe. My son should have been safe. I should have kept him safe.

Rosin's article, titled online "The Overprotected Kid," is a fascinating critique of how modern parents, in their quest for parenting perfection, obsessively direct and monitor their children, even at play. And I resonated with her conclusions, not merely as a parent, but as a Christian.

Related Topics:Guilt; Motherhood; Parenting
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