I read the subject line for the latest message on my neighborhood listserv with interest: “Kids Cutting Grass?”
A few years ago I’d used a post with a similar headline to find someone to do some yard work. My husband and I hired a neighborhood kid whose Dad had died the year prior after a long illness. Maybe 13 years old, he’d taken to doing yard work to raise much-needed money and have something to do.
But this email was very different. It read:
“We just had a group of adorable and entrepreneurial kids (young, maybe 9-11 years old) offer to mow our grass. Not to be Scrooges in the neighborhood, but what is the general consensus on this around [the neighborhood] re: safety? They looked pretty young, and we didn’t see a parent with them supervising. I realize kids want to earn spending money, but I was interested in getting the pulse on this sort of thing. Teenagers, maybe. But these kids looked like they may be older elementary school aged (guess). We had a family member lose a couple of toes mowing while a young kid, so maybe I’m just overly sensitive.”
The next email read, “For anyone whose interested, the [American Academy of Pediatrics] recommends that children be at least 12 years old before operating a push mower and 16 for a ride-on mower, along with a list of safety precautions. Just FYI.”
A link was provided to a page on the AAP web site headlined “Mowing the Lawn Can Be a Dangerous Chore.” Injury prevention tips there include: “Have anyone who uses a mower or is in the vicinity wear polycarbonate protective eyewear at all times.”
I repeat. One tip was that everyone in the vicinity of a lawn mower should be wearing polycarbonate protective eyewear at all times.
A neighbor weighed in: “That’s a good age recommendation, probably. I would also suggest not having any age kid mow if there are any pesticides, herbicides, or insecticides involved. The American Cancer Society considers those to be a risk factor for non-Hodgkin lymphoma, possibly more.”
My mouth dropped open. Was I really reading this right? My older brother and I had done lawn work from a young age growing up in Colorado. He’d mow the grass and I’d weed. We made enough money to buy music, candy and stickers. My brother kept with it long enough to save funds for college. It wasn’t just lawn mowing. Every snowstorm was an opportunity to make some money. After we shoveled the elderly next-door neighbor’s walk for free, we’d venture down the road and try to find takers.
Never had the 1980s seemed so idyllic. Imagine being a kid in these times in my neighborhood, a cheery, liberal suburb of Washington, D.C. (How cheery? We have the delightful Dairy Godmother custard shop. How liberal? More than three-quarters of my neighbors voted for Obama in 2012.)
I weighed in on the neighborhood list-serv as well.
“My brother and I did lawn mowing jobs—completely unsupervised by our parents, though with their encouragement—from a young age. There are, as with all things, health and safety risks. But we learned how money and business worked. We developed a work ethic. We interacted with our neighbors and honed our yard work skills. We gained independence and confidence. And we made money! It’s all about trade-offs. In our case, the positive far outweighed the negative. Also, as it happens, I could use some lawn mowing as our lawn mower broke down. So if anyone sees these young entrepreneurs, perhaps they could be pointed our way.”
Tricycle helmets for all
David Frum eloquently pointed out one problem with over-protecting children in his book What’s Right. Reflecting on the hordes of preschoolers wearing helmets as they rode 1-2 miles per hour down the sidewalk, he wondered if his fellow parents hadn’t gone mad.
Our children are soaked with the cult of safety the way they would once have imbibed religion or patriotism. At school, teachers ‘street-proof’ children—that is, they teach them that kidnappers and child molesters lurk in every playground. Television excites children with environmentalist fears that the air and water they breathe and drink teem with toxins, that the food they eat is saturated with deadly pesticides, and that the juice bottles they discard will soon cover the entire surface of the earth.
When everything is a safety crisis, nothing is. So it should be little surprise that older children are less likely to heed warnings against smoking, drinking and having, in the parlance of modern educators, “unsafe” sex.
Frum reflects on the freedom children had in Tom Sawyer and I’d like to believe that somewhere out in America kids can still experience that freedom. Last year’s film Mud, an underrated gem written and directed by Jeff Nichols, is about two teenage boys navigating life on and off a Mississippi River island. It would horrify my neighbors. These boys wake up early to help their family work the river. They ride motorcycles. They handle guns. They make friends with dangerous criminals. They learn how complicated and confusing love is. They nearly die. And the only thing they have to show for it at the end is that they grow up. Unfortunately, one of the explicit themes of this wonderful film is an elegiac lament for a lifestyle that is quickly disappearing.
Of course, it’s one thing to note that modernity is ablating the proud, agrarian independence of rural America. That’s been happening for a century. But the signs of this crushing of America’s spirit of risk-taking are everywhere. I see it every time I take my children to a suburban playground. The dangerous metal slides, rickety merry-go-rounds and tall monkey bars are a thing of the past, a casualty of federal regulations and rapacious lawyers. The benefit is supposed to be fewer injuries, although the evidence of that is surprisingly thin. Those old playgrounds had a progressive danger to them that taught kids how to assess risk. When you grow up thinking that every fall will be cushioned by safety mulch or fall height-rated rubber flooring, turns out you have trouble when it comes to real world rock-climbing.
Even The New York Times has asked the question “Can a Playground Be Too Safe?” The answer is a resounding yes:
While some psychologists – and many parents – have worried that a child who suffered a bad fall would develop a fear of heights, studies have shown the opposite pattern: A child who’s hurt in a fall before the age of 9 is less likely as a teenager to have a fear of heights.
By gradually exposing themselves to more and more dangers on the playground, children are using the same habituation techniques developed by therapists to help adults conquer phobias, according to Dr. Sandseter and a fellow psychologist, Leif Kennair, of the Norwegian University for Science and Technology.
“Risky play mirrors effective cognitive behavioral therapy of anxiety,” they write in the journal Evolutionary Psychology, concluding that this “anti-phobic effect” helps explain the evolution of children’s fondness for thrill-seeking. While a youthful zest for exploring heights might not seem adaptive – why would natural selection favor children who risk death before they have a chance to reproduce? – the dangers seemed to be outweighed by the benefits of conquering fear and developing a sense of mastery.
“Paradoxically,” the psychologists write, “we posit that our fear of children being harmed by mostly harmless injuries may result in more fearful children and increased levels of psychopathology.”
So to sum up, letting your child take risks allows them to conquer fear and develop “a sense of mastery.” Irrationally shielding them from risk creates phobias and psychopaths.
Safety is not a virtue
Many parents just can’t accept the reality that we’re not in as much control of our children as we wish. Last week my nephew went to an outdoor camp in Colorado with the rest of his 5th-grade class. They were supposed to stay just one night. Floods hit the region, the roads washed out and filled with boulders. There was nothing anyone could do. After being stranded for three days, the parents heard about plans to airlift the kids out via Chinook helicopter. That plan was halted when some parents complained it was too dangerous. Who knew that helicopter parents would be threatened by actual helicopters?
Never mind that riding on a Chinook would be the adventure of a lifetime for a 10-year-old. Perhaps because there were no other reasonable options, the airlift commenced the next day. Every child survived and my nephew reported that “No one ever had so much fun in a natural disaster.”
Look, I’m a mother. I care deeply about my children’s safety. But safety is just one important thing to teach our children. And it’s not even anywhere near the most important thing. Keeping your kids from dying or getting hurt is of secondary importance to teaching them how to live. Safety isn’t even a virtue. If you’re teaching your kids more about safety than you are about honesty, kindness, respect for others, responsibility, gratitude, integrity, cooperation, determination, social skills, enthusiasm, compassion and manners, you’re doing it wrong.
Incidentally, a great way to learn some of those virtues is by encouraging them to mow a neighbor’s lawn.
It’s all about trade-offs
As I told my neighborhood listserv, when my brother and I got out of the house to do yard work, we were in what you’d call a trade-off situation. We risked our safety, however modestly. But we gained money, work ethic, communication skills, and knowledge. We also got to actually know and interact with our neighbors.
When the folks in my neighborhood try to shut down a burgeoning lawn care enterprise, they’re also in a trade-off situation. They gain some satisfaction in feeling they’ve made children safer. But at what cost?
Well, for starters, a parenting style that abjures risk at all costs may be at least partially responsible for the country’s economic doldrums. In June, the Wall Street Journal pointed out four trends, observable since the 1980s, that showed a marked declined in risk-taking psychology. “Risk Averse Culture Infects U.S. Workers, Entrepreneurs” notes that ongoing job creation and destruction has slowed, that investors are less willing to back startups, that startups in general are down and that the workforce itself is resistant to migration and job change.
My neighborhood is in Northern Virginia, an area that has been rewarded for playing it safe and going after government cash. Many of my neighbors are government employees, lawyers and lobbyists. Many of them have found success regulating other people’s businesses out of existence, destructive acts all too frequently predicated on fears that somebody somewhere might get hurt. It’s not surprising, in that context, that my neighbors would call for regulation of the lemonade stand or lawn mowing business run by the kids next door.
The fact is that America is now run by people who profit from keeping everyone else from taking risks. It’s lucrative work if you can get it. Six of the ten richest counties in the country are next to Washington, D.C., for good reason. [“It’s where the money is.” -- Willie Sutton] But this isn’t a recipe for prospering culturally or politically.
In order to pull out of this tailspin, it will take a generation or more of parents raising kids to take risks. We need mothers and fathers who encourage their kids to play outside, to mow lawns, to start business ventures and to live freely. Yes, they may face danger and get hurt. That’s a feature, not a bug.
For what it’s worth, when I wrote my note to the listserv, I received excellent feedback from other neighbors who were thankful for my response. But nobody else weighed in publicly. Whether that was just a prudent decision in an overwhelmingly Blue neighborhood or an indication of a lack of courage is unknown. Either way, it’s alarming that I was the only one who spoke up. If we’re ever going to fix America, we have to understand that freedom’s just another word for letting the neighborhood kids mow your lawn.