How to Create a Safer Childhood: Eliminate Rules


In the news recently, a New Zealand school got rid of rules at recess. This change was part of a university experiment—a study that found eliminating recess rules led to less bullying, fewer injuries, less vandalism, and an increase in students’ ability to concentrate during class.

What did no rules mean? Students were allowed to climb trees, ride skateboards, play contact games, and more. Basically they were allowed to do what they wanted, and all the problems the rules were supposed to prevent diminished in this chaotic environment.

Here we have a perfect example of what we know to be true but still struggle to apply in our own American society. You can’t always protect kids from risk. Not only is it impossible, it’s not healthy. Letting kids experiment, play freely and actively, and take risks teaches them to discover their limits, make mistakes, and learn from it. Ultimately it keeps them safer.

(MORE: An Open Letter to the School that Banned Cartwheels)

When you think about it, the decline in bullying makes perfect sense, too. Who has time to worry about picking on someone when there are no recess rules? There are trees to be climbed! Skateboard tricks to master! In a society where our playgrounds have become increasingly safer, removing many of the more adventurous structures, it’s no wonder that bullying is an issue at recess. In America we resolve this problem by reducing or eliminating recess or replacing it with structured playtime. But maybe we’re missing the point.

(MORE: Has Playground Safety Gone Too Far?)

Fewer injuries. Less bullying. Better classroom focus. This is what we all want. It’s fascinating, perplexing, and a bit scary that one school achieved this by abolishing rules.

Of course, people who grew up several decades ago may not be surprised by the results of this study. We used to live in a time with fewer rules, so what happened? When did we become so afraid? Is it because we put a TV in everyone’s household? Is it the rampant media attention on a few horrific events? Is it the lawsuit-crazy culture we live in?

I don’t know the answer. What I do know is that I personally became a parent amidst this culture of fear. I was “born” into it when my son was born five years ago. Overprotection feels normal. We’re all doing it. We’re all trying to keep our kids safe, maybe to an unhealthy level. It’s become so normal that simple questions, such as, “How long should I let my 5-year-old play in the backyard alone without checking on him?”, become quite difficult to answer.

Experts propose that our fearful parenting also causes mental health issues. In fact, mental health issues for kids, such as anxiety and depression, have been on the rise over the last six decades.

(MORE: Why Less Playtime May Cause Mental Health Disorders)

Blogger Lenore Skenazy is famous (or infamous in some people’s minds) for her blog Free Range Kids, in which she writes about “how to raise safe, self-reliant children without going nuts with worry.” One of her most commented posts is called “Why I Let My 9-Year-Old Ride the Subway Alone.” In case there’s any question, that’s the subway in New York City. My gut reaction is whoa. I would not be comfortable doing that! (I think, anyway. My kid isn’t 9 yet.)

This is the challenge, however, in becoming a parent during this time of fear: I’m not sure that I can trust my gut reactions. People like to spout off trite words of wisdom, such as, “Go with your instincts,” but the truth is, sometimes our instincts are wrong. When we want to cotton-wool our children instead of letting them take risks, and experience the world, our instincts are likely wrong.

Frequently, in fact, you have to do something counter to your instincts as a parent. Remember the first time you got a babysitter for your infant? Or the first day you dropped off your child at daycare or preschool? Leaving without your kid is just about one of the most counter-instinctual things you can experience. (Even when it does give you an amazing sense of freedom!)

I think as a culture we have to reshape our parenting instincts. We have to find ways to give kids back some of the childhood freedom that even those of us in our twenties, thirties and forties remember having as kids. We have to find a way to come to terms with our fear and not let it cripple our kids. Hopefully our global connectedness and unprecedented access to information we have in the 21st century can work in our favor. Instead of reinforcing our fears, maybe we’ll start to hear more stories like the New Zealand example that will make us rethink and reshape our instincts.



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