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Can Kids Just Be Kids?

A March 2014 article in The Atlantic brought up an interesting point not only for parents but also for public safety professionals. The article by Hanna Rosin, “The Overprotected Kid,” begins by talking about the changes in parenting over the last fifty years and how these changes affect the way our children view and behave in the world. The subtitle says it all, “A preoccupation with safety has stripped childhood of independence, risk taking, and discovery-without making it safer.” Although the article focuses mostly on playgrounds, the point the author makes with support from numerous child mental health professionals is that the way children are parented now keeps them from developing naturally. This overprotective parenting has become the norm and when a family deviates, it is often looked at as permissive and neglectful. This perception can become problematic when it crosses over into law enforcement and child welfare realms.   

Risky Play

Children are motivated to conduct behavioral experiments investigating their environment explains Ellen Sandseter, in “Children’s Risky Play from an Evolutionary Perspective: The Anti-Phobic Effects of Thrilling Experiences. This includes what she calls risky play and a reduction in safety behaviors. These progressively increasing behaviors are human universals and are part of adaptation and evolved mental mechanisms. “Risky play is thrilling and exciting forms of play that involve a risk of physical injury,” she states. “Risky play primarily takes place outdoors, often as challenging and adventurous physical activities, children attempting something they have never done before, skirting the borderline of the feeling of being out of control (often because of height and speed) and overcoming fear.” Remember climbing to the top of the tree, or crossing that busy road or exploring the woods on your own? These were all situations that felt dangerous and it is in the feeling that the benefit was gained.

Risky play occurs in children’s free time, generally unsupervised and without adult organization and oversight. This is a world that we as adults remember from our own childhoods but are not invited into with our own children just as we did not invite our parents. The difference is that our parents did not try and invite themselves. 

Less Freedom

Allowing children, even teenagers, free range is becoming less and less common. Children are driven from structured place to structured place with little time to explore their environment and interact with peers on an equal level not dictated by adults. The idea of free range often makes adults think of hoards of unsupervised children wandering the streets but this is not the case at all. “It’s hard to absorb how much childhood norms have shifted in just one generation,” Rosen writes. “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.” She furthers, “As we parents began to see public spaces - playgrounds, streets, public ball fields, the distance between school and home - as dangerous, other, smaller daily decisions fell into place. Ask any of my parenting peers to chronicle a typical week in their child’s life and they will likely mention school, homework, after-school classes, organized playdates, sports teams coached by a fellow parent, and very little free, unsupervised time. Failure to supervise has become, in fact, synonymous with failure to parent.”


Children’s lives today are perfectly choreographed. Research shows that at all income levels parents spend more time with their children today than they did with in the 1970s even though there are more single parent and dual-income families. Why? Rosin explains it well after assessing her own childhood:


My mother didn’t work all that much when I was younger, but she didn’t spend vast amounts of time with me, either. She didn’t arrange my playdates or drive me to swimming lessons or introduce me to cool music she liked. On weekdays after school she just expected me to show up for dinner; on weekends I barely saw her at all. I, on the other hand, might easily spend every waking Saturday hour with one if not all three of my children, taking one to a soccer game, the second to a theater program, the third to a friend’s house, or just hanging out with them at home. When my daughter was about 10, my husband suddenly realized that in her whole life, she had probably not spent more than 10 minutes unsupervised by an adult. Not 10 minutes in 10 years.


Benefits of Risky Play

In her article, Sandseter identifies six categories of risky play but prior to detailing what these are and how they benefit children, she defines risk. “Risk-taking is usually defined as the engagement in behaviors that are associated with some probability of negative outcome,” she explains. She challenges readers to consider the difference between a hazard and a risk in this context. A hazard is something that a child cannot see while a risk is being uncertain of outcome and requires a choice. She furthers, “most people meet situations that involve some element of risk throughout their everyday lives. We need, through experience and learning, to be prepared to meet these risks and to manage them. In this view, risk can be defined not necessarily as just negative, but as situations in which we are required to make choices among alternate courses of action where the outcome is unknown.” Let’s look at two categories of risky play that can create issues in a public safety context.


Rough-and-Tumble includes wrestling, fencing with sticks, etc and play fighting. It is where the children can harm each other. These types of play are common across cultures and in animals similar to humans. As children age and mature this play changes but it still has the same role which Sandseter describes as involving, “great physical and motor stimulation (and) enhance(s) complex social competences such as affiliation with peers, social signaling, good managing and dominance skills within the peer group, bargaining, manipulation and redefining situations.” Unfortunately, we no longer allow our children this evolutionary adaptive process. With zero tolerance policies in school and law enforcement call-outs on any tussle at the park, we are not only taking away this important risky play but criminalizing it.

Play with Dangerous Tools

Another category of risky play that has been turned into a negative and often criminalized is playing with tools that are potentially dangerous including cutting tools (knives, saws, axes) and strangling tools such as ropes which can lead to injuries and wounds. Children love to whittle, cut down branches, carpenter and chop wood. They also love to throw dangerous tools. Sandseter makes a note that the adult perception of this behavior as risky is one that has changed in the last few generations. The benefit to this play is manipulation of objects in different ways and has adaptive relevance. Like rough-and-tumble play, this behavior can be found across cultures. It has also been affected by zero tolerance and criminalized. Seeing a young child whittling with a knife or a group of older children throwing axes at a tree would be considered neglectful on the parent’s part and criminally dangerous in the case of the older children. Both, once considered normative, would now most likely involve law enforcement and child welfare. 

Children are now faced with a fear of growing up, phobias and the inability to think for themselves. There is no longer a hierarchy where children learn to be empathetic, compassionate and egalitarian. We have moved into a society that classifies parents who allow their children free range, exploration with dangerous tools and elements (such as cliffs, bodies of water and fire pits) and rough-and-tumble as neglectful and require a law enforcement response to behaviors that were once considered important adaptations and developmentally appropriate. Can we as a public safety community stop criminalizing and encourage these risky play behaviors? This is a question that will continue to grow in relevance as childhood becomes more and more protected with negative consequences to our children.