I’m a social worker, family therapist, and teacher. My work has given me the opportunity to visit with troubled children all over the world: children who throw stones in Palestinian refugee camps and unsupervised teens on Israeli kibbutzim, children who dodge gunfire to go to school in Colombia’s poorest mountainside communities, and those who live as student paramilitaries in remote parts of India, teenaged mothers living in the cinderblock slums of rural Tanzania, glue-sniffing children on native reserves in Canada’s Far North, and bored disenfranchised youth existing in monochrome suburbs across the United States, Canada, and Europe. In many ways, these children are not all that different from one another. They are all at risk of being harmed or harming others, living desperate lives that force them to find creative ways to survive. And survive they do. The world over, young people tell me the same thing: they will do whatever they need to do to convince themselves they are competent, capable contributors to their communities. They are all, in one way or another, steadfastly committed to making their lives better.
For these children growing up amid real danger, our task is simple. We need to give them safer homes, safer streets, immunizations, connections with adults who won’t abuse them, and most of all, hope.
However, for many other more fortunate children, I’ve become concerned that we are offering them too much safety
. Odd as that may sound, there is a connection between all the security we offer children and why our kids behave violently, do drugs, and take risks with their bodies, minds, and spirits.
What’s going on? Why would a child with everything choose the life of the delinquent, the bully, the runaway, the street kid, or the drug addict? Why would a child with everything insist on taking on responsibility that parents know is beyond her years? Why would a young person insist on being sexually active, or demand the right to work after school, threatening the grades he might get if he focused more on his studies? This book presents some unconventional wisdom to answer these questions, wisdom that comes from the kids themselves. They tell me that, whether growing up with lots of advantages or few, they crave adventure and responsibility. Both necessarily come with a sizable amount of risk. And both are often in short supply in families and communities dead set on keeping their children too safe for their own good.
Don’t get me wrong. I am as concerned as anyone about our young people growing up and drifting into problem behaviours. But I’m worried that we may, out of our deep and committed love for our children, be overdoing it. It’s not that our commitment to raising healthy children is the problem. It is simply that we are going about keeping our children safe in a way that is inadvertently putting them at much greater risk of serious harm.
SO WHAT’S SO GOOD ABOUT RISK-TAKING?
But how much of a good thing is too much? While we are keeping kids safe, have we also paid enough attention to some of the good things that risk-taking brings us while growing up? Can you remember a time when putting yourself in harm’s way was a rite of passage you craved? I remember those large steel playground wheels I used to love to jump on and spin around on at high speeds when I was a kid. Emboldened by the adrenalin rush of centrifugal force, my friends and I wouldn’t stop until our stomachs heaved. My city council recently voted to remove them from my children’s playground.
I’m becoming anxious that we’ve gone too far
in removing “risky” activities from our children’s lives.
After all, once we’ve taken away all the dangerous things for our kids to do under our watchful gaze, where will they turn to find their thrills? We mustn’t forget to offer them other opportunities to experience moments of growth and exhilaration.
This book explores how to find a balance between keeping our children out of harm’s way while still offering them what they need to experience the thrills that are part of growing up.
Excerpted from Too Safe for Their Own Good by Michael Ungar. Copyright © 2007 by Michael Ungar. Excerpted by permission of McClelland & Stewart, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.