Feet on the Ground
As a five-year-old, there was nothing more comforting than curling up in the cocoon of my dad’s arms and falling under the hypnosis of “walk’n down the road, walk’n down the road, to call on old friend toad.” This same line repeated itself about 20 times throughout my favorite picture book. My dad read it each time with the same commitment as he did the first time. He could have been reading aloud the Wall Street Journal, and I don’t think I would have minded. Mostly, I relished the sense of security and love.
I liked safety as a child--everything to do with it. Ensuring that everyone in our family Suburban was properly buckled before the vehicle was in motion (including my imaginary friend, Bloom Bloom), earned me the title, Miss OSHA (Occupational Health and Safety Administration). I had a habit of watching out the window on blizzarding winter nights, vowing not to sleep until my mother arrived home safely from her work meeting. I also found it was my duty to lecture people--as a 13-year-old nonetheless, on the lasting and irreversible effects of smoking. Add to the list wanting to cure Type 2 Diabetes and save every drowning child. The conclusion to all of this is not that I became the most popular kid in school. Quite the opposite.
Sometimes, the most important things to us are so deeply ingrained that we don’t even see them. We live in a world of the obvious. Our labels have become everyday wear: man, woman, white, black, Christian, Muslim, gay, straight, liberal, conservative, rich, poor… Sometimes, we cling to our labels because we see the need to defend our territory--a territory that is a result of circumstance and/or choice. Sometimes, our labels cling to us. We can lose sight of the fact that we are more than our labels. As one gentleman said to me after I had asked him how long he had been a Buddhist, “Well first off, I´m a human.”
A woman from rural Oregon grew up in a conservative household (see, labels...). In her home, there were guns. Guns for hunting, guns for fun, guns for safety--they lived 55 miles from any law enforcement. She was trained in how to use them safely. When she was older, she left her family and saw a different side of guns: she was held-up at gunpoint at a bookstore, experienced gun violence in cities, and when she was older, her husband, a trained Marine, killed himself with a gun. Her name is E.M. Lewis, and she wrote a play about it called “The Gun Show.” Her conclusion to the US’ deep gun divide: It is more complicated than it seems. First, we must talk to each other, she says. Second, we must try to see what we have in common. She believes it is our desire for safety--something so deep within us, we don’t even see it anymore.
You could take any issue in our world right now, and when you dig deep down, at the heart of it, there are humans yearning for a sense of security--like that indescribable calm I felt when my dad read to me. It might be emotional, physical, financial, societal. We know that kids are often more equipped for life when they are raised with a safe place to go home each day. Kids need a sense of security. Of course, that doesn’t mean that a little risk or taste of adventure doesn’t still call their name. And it should; this is how we grow. But risk is only deemed a success if you find your feet safely on the ground again after your flight.
If you’ve followed the reporting on this topic over the last several years, you’ve seen that studies have suggested that we might be a tad too safety prone, especially in the US. In response, schools have popped up that encourage more risk taking in physical play by encouraging kids to build campfires, climb trees, play in streams--leading to increased social skills, confidence, resilience and risk management skills (Environmental Research and Public Health, 2015). Some have even taken a new look at classroom management and have found that less rules actually can lead to less bullying (Pediatrics, May 2017). Scandinavian countries have led the way on such thinking, even creating policy such as the Norwegian Kindergarten Act (NMER 2005) and the framework for kindergarten (NMER 2006/2011), both of which, “emphasize children’s opportunities for play, exploration, meaningful experiences, and activities in safe yet challenging environments.”
The online world is no different. It is just less familiar territory to us. Interacting with others, online or not, is a risk. It makes us vulnerable, exposed, open to judgement. When we enter a conversation with someone with a different background from ourselves, which occurs regularly in a place called the World Wide Web, we are taking a risk. There are healthy risks and unhealthy risks, though. Providing a stranger your phone number on Snapchat, unhealthy. Asking someone what life is like in Africa, healthy. By providing a better digital environment for kids from around the world to interact, we can encourage the kind of healthy risk taking that leads to the same skill development that we hope for in physical environments.
Mariana Brussoni, Associate Professor of Pediatrics at the University of British Columbia, has spent a considerable amount of time on the subject matter of kids and risk. Her advice, which could also be applied to the digital realm, is to find balance: “Setting unnecessary limits on a child’s play or pushing them too far: both are problematic. Our role as caregivers is to give children the freedom to explore and play as they choose while supporting them in managing the real dangers that pose a serious and realistic threat to their safety.”
As a moderator for Kudos, I love observing kids participating in challenging conversations that require them to open their eyes to a bigger world. Common topics might sound familiar: politics, religion, gender. But what kids do really well is continue a conversation, even if they disagree.
One thing is clear: This is a conversation we need to continue as adults, both organically as families within communities and within academic communities, where research can support a more unified global effort. What should safety online look and feel like? What about risk? The answers may not immediately be obvious.