on safety and risk

On Safety & Risks - Heirloom Mothering
Mom & me on Halloween, 1987

One element of my childhood that personifies of the old adage, “If you love something, let it go,” is the trampoline. Perhaps a more apt interpretation of a pre-1990’s childhood would be, “If you love something, let it go hog wild.” Our trampoline was not a fancy octagon equipped with padded springs and a safety net. It was rectangular, with older springs and no safety net. It even wobbled a bit from the uneven ground.

A hole gradually grew in the middle of the netting; it grew until it could occupy an entire leg if inserted while jumping, which would immediately awkwardly scissor the legs of even the most accomplished gymnast and require a second set of hands to free the victim from the trampoline’s clutches.

Other times a foot would slip off the edge of the trampoline. Because the springs weren’t padded, the foot would slip easily between them as if the space were designed to accommodate human appendages. And if the hole or spaces between springs didn’t get you, the static electricity surely would. We played rock-paper-scissors to see who would touch the side of the trampoline first to get the shock. Once that person had a foothold, the remaining kids could be ferried shock-free to the ground.

Older neighborhood boys—think Keifer Sutherland ala Stand by Me—would insist on us lying like toy soldiers on the trampoline while they bounced over us across the trampoline like it was an obstacle course. Such features ensured a lively jumping experience, and I willingly accepted the invigorating adventure in my own backyard. We would flip, we’d double-bounce, we’d play popcorn; it seemed our primary goal was to see if we could bounce each other off the thing.

The trampoline was first located on a hill overlooking an aboveground pool. I was probably about ten years old the day we convinced my seven-year-old cousin to jump from the trampoline to the pool. A vision is burned on my brain of this child flying through the air toward the pool. She landed not even close to the pool and rolled the rest of the way, with a resounding thud at the pool’s edge but got up smiling and earned our respect in addition to her bruises.

I would jump on that trampoline for what felt like days in a row. By the time I hopped off, I would walk around the rest of the evening feeling like I had ten times the normal weight of gravity on my feet, like when you step off the moving sidewalk and suddenly feel like you’re walking through thick mud. As an only child, I saw the trampoline as a playmate, which is probably much how my mother saw it as well.

When we moved to the new house, the pool was at the opposite end of the yard. No matter, because now the trampoline was close to the hill covered with English ivy. We would jump off the trampoline onto the hill, and whoever could grab on higher on the hill would win the admiration of the fellow children. In later years, when I got old enough to date, the trampoline became a destination for “star gazing” with young beaus.

Looking back, many of my childhood pastimes seemed foolish to me as a young adult. Had you asked me then, I might have criticized my parents, figuring they were too involved in their own lives to observe what I was doing properly. Now, though, I see a beauty in their distance. Giving me space was showing me love in a way I didn’t understand until I became a parent. Since then I have learned how difficult it is to craft space between my children and myself. If I smother them with my love, can I name that affection true love, or is it more loving to set them free?

My gut tells me the latter is the correct answer, but sometimes it seems like I’m alone in my quest to give my kids independence. I am a mother in a time when helicopter moms chase after their children on the playground, concerned both for their safety and self-esteem, but accomplishing neither of those goals in their process of herding. My kids can’t sneeze without someone turning around to tell me whether I should or shouldn’t get them vaccinated, wash their hands, feed them only real food, no gluten, or let them eat dirt.

If you haven’t read it yet, I recommend the Atlantic article, The Overprotected Kid, which includes the description of a great playground in the UK that lets kids play creatively without boring, uniform equipment. I also love the website Free Range Kids; Lenore Skenazy shares tips for how to let your kids take risks safely.

What do you think about this issue? When death and disease prevention became priorities in the American household and the number of children decreased, did our level of acceptable risk decrease too?

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6 thoughts on “on safety and risk

  1. Yah, I guess what I am thinking now, with teens, is this freedom we have given them is frustrating because the rest of the world is not conditioned to see them as competent. & also, their peers can’t do ANYTHING without a hover-er & I am not willing to go see one more shitty movie in my life as a chaperone, so thank God my kids are peers & good frends to each other.

    I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about it, lol, so can’t articulate more than that. It’s just a thing I think about. The idea of all these smothered children being set freeeeeee in 3-5yrs is terrifying, though. See you.

    1. I’m already experiencing that frustration with my six-year-old, so I imagine another ten years is going to add heaps to that. Also, I keep hearing about people being arrested for sending their 9-year-old to the park to play with friends (?!). And yes, TERRIFYYYING!

  2. Wow. This one brought back some memories. I recently bought one of the small, net surrounded trampolines for my boys and seeing them out in the back yard, bouncing, reminds me of that rusty trampoline in your backyard. My husband and I try hard to allow them the same space our parents gave us to experience things on their own.

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