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Tiffy Thompson: "Are we safer? Sure. But we might die of boredom."

The author atop “Porter” AKA death train

NYC’s ruling banning sugary drinks over 16 oz (juice, milkshakes and vodka shots excluded) has been instated to keep the obese masses in check. Mayor Bloomberg announced: “We’re not taking away anybody’s rights to do things. We’re simply forcing you to understand.” Ontario’s chief coroner reminds us that all adults should be forced to wear bike helmets. Pediatricians have come to the shocking and buzz-killing revelation that trampolines are dangerous for kids. It has been years since I’ve seen a seesaw or roundabout in a playground. All the death traps and rough edges have been smoothed into outdoor rubber rooms. I would be hard pressed to find a devil’s advocate for smoking or street racing or KFC double downs.

Are we safer with our measured-portions, climate-controls and helmets? Sure. But we might die of boredom.

All of these protections are designed to save people from their idiotic selves. But mostly its covering the butts of insurance companies. And lawyers who drool at lawsuits that bank on people’s stupidity and greed.

I once ate 6.5 bananas and rode down wooden staircase using a nylon sleeping bag as a makeshift toboggan. It was great fun until I started projectile vomiting. The lesson? That was an activity to be practiced sporadically. I once entertained myself by leaping down the second-storey laundry chute. The bottom of the chute cracked apart under my weight, casting me into the toilet below. My bruised tailbone was a wise teacher.  I once got curious about what might happen if I shoved a peanut up my nose. The result? A trip to the emergency where an unimpressed doctor strapped me to a gurney and yanked it out. That too was an effective lesson in choices.

Protecting your offspring from harm is a necessary component of parenting. But creating a sterile bubble of protection is insulting to the intelligence of children. It strips their resourcefulness in learning from mistakes and injuries.

When I lived in Sault Ste. Marie, an old train engine dubbed “Porter” (complete with haunting clown face) was the plaything of choice at Bellevue Park. In recent years, guardians of public safety called for it to be removed. There was considerable backlash, with many waxing nostalgic about this menacing, if immobile, structure. It was dubbed a historical monument and roped off. No climbing allowed. The massive wooden death-slide was also removed. In its stead were candy-colored but ultimately ‘safe’ apparatus. A carnival of mediocrity.

According to a recent study in the American Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, injury concerns were a major barrier to children’s physical activity. “The new, safer equipment often became boring because children mastered it so quickly. To make it more challenging, kids tended to improvise, walking up the slide the wrong way, or using supports as a climbing apparatus. Sometimes younger children were drawn to the older kids’ equipment, presumably because it presented a more interesting set of challenges. Overly strict safety standards made much of the climbing equipment uninteresting, thus reducing children’s physical activity.”

In Europe, this is not so much the case. Play structures comprised of hammers and nails and monstrous climbing walls encourage children to truly explore the limits of their capacities for creativity (and injury). Yet even with the rough materials involved, injuries are minimal. According to Adventure Playground manager Denise Brown, “there are fewer injuries on Adventure Playgrounds than at standard U.S. playgrounds. At Kolle 37, an Adventure Playground in Berlin where kids can build their own three-story forts with wood and nails, two children have broken bones and a couple have stepped on nails over the course of five years.”

Norwegian researchers Ellen Sandseter & Leif Kennair concluded that barring children from risky play can actually increase their anxiety. “Children develop fears of certain stimuli (e.g., heights and strangers) that protect them from situations they are not mature enough to cope with, naturally through infancy. Risky play is a set of motivated behaviors that both provide the child with an exhilarating positive emotion and expose the child to the stimuli they previously have feared. As the child’s coping skills improve, these situations and stimuli may be mastered and no longer be feared.”

Many ‘helicopter’ parents seem to believe their children should be prevented from making mistakes. Any slight or injury must be blamed on the larger world. So that world must be filtered and controlled. The threat of a costly lawsuit has erradicated countless activities and products. Idiotic inscriptions: Coffee — HOT! (no shit, genius) are scrawled on as a cursory corporate butt-covering from greedy opportunists, chomping at the bit to play the victim all the way to the bank.

The NYC drink ban tells me that we are juvenile morons unable to be responsible for our own choices. I have received far greater injury from the emotional fallout of dating absolute jackasses. But that was never effectively legislated out of possibility!

You can’t prepare for or anticipate what sort of hellish things may befall you or your family. No amount of careful planning and arduous control will help. Instead it crafts the perception that the world must be sympathetic or will be sued, that we are entitled to a life free of pain and strife. Coddled to the point of infantilization, suddenly everyone else should be held accountable for my misfortunes. This culture of victimization persists with shouts of outrage from and towards every possible faction. There are people who are offended at every turn, victimized every time they feel discomfort or pain.

We all know that junk food makes you fat, smoking causes cancer, coffee is hot (ideally), and trampolines can paralyze you. But the choice should be yours.


Tiffy Thompson is a writer and illustrator for the Toronto Standard.  Follow her on Twitter at @tiffyjthompson. 

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