Breaking All the Rules

“Lost souls need simple answers. / It feels good to do what you’re told.” – Monster Magnet, “Cry”

This is my son.

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Doing his best T-Rex impression.

I’ll call him V-Rex, because he’s my son and I can call him whatever I want. Don’t believe me? His actual middle name is Norse for Warbear. Now what’s up?

This is my son’s bed.

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Like most of our furniture, it’s from Ikea. As you probably know, this means I had to build it myself using Ikea’s famous pictographic assembly instructions. Much has been said of those instructions, and truth be told I don’t find them all that bad. (Full disclosure: I make at least one major error each time I assemble a piece of furniture. This time it was putting the headboard on backward.) There was one thing in the instructions for this bed, though, that got to me. At least three times, I was warned by a strongly worded picture that the raised-mattress configuration of this bed is only for children above the age of six.

Here’s a quick video of V-Rex, about a month shy of his fourth birthday, climbing down from his bed:

Now, there are a few ways in which I know V-Rex is somewhat advanced. He can name all the planets in the solar system in order, he knows more dinosaurs by name than most people who aren’t paleontologists, and he has the reasoning skills of an average 8th grader in my class. (Coincidentally, the average 8th grader in my class has the reasoning skills of a 4 year-old.)

But this is a kid who refuses to graduate from the baby swings and has yet to master pumping his legs or even shifting his weight to build momentum. When we signed him up for soccer, he spent most of his time pulling up grass. I wouldn’t call him clumsy or uncoordinated, but the boy is no gymnast. And yet, night after night, morning after morning, he gets in and out of his bed without any trouble.

Look, I know that Ikea doesn’t mean to insult me or my boy and that they just put the warning on there so that if my top heavy little dude takes a header out of bed because he insists on hanging his big o’ noggin over the side despite my repeated reproval I can’t sue them. But what I’m really wondering is how many parents out there take the warnings for rules? How many little Johnnies and Suzies won’t have the joy of pretending they’re looking down from the bridge of a battleship or of having play forts under their beds while they can still fit under there because Mom and Dad don’t know that six is not the minimum age at which a kid can safely climb a short ladder but actually the maximum age some Swedish lawyer figured people might try to sue if mommy’s little dumbass went tumbling down?

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Seriously, guys. Ladders are easy.

My frustration isn’t really about my son, his bed, Ikea, or even lawsuit happy parents. My frustration is with the shift in our culture that has changed a warning into a rule. I get, “Caution: Beverage may be hot.” I don’t get, “Hot Beverage–Do NOT consume while driving, walking, sitting on a boat, or standing for long periods of time.” But man, people love to be told what to do. Think about it. From folding a fitted sheet to drinking soda from a can and eating Chinese takeout to taking a dump (the natural consequence of that soda and Chinese takeout), how many times lately has some clickbait article on a third-rate website told you “YOU’VE BEEN [doing the thing] WRONG YOUR WHOLE LIFE”?

I’m no social scientist, but I think there may be a connection between this need to be told (and to tell others) how to do things and what looks to me like a growing problem of turning guidelines into rules. Earlier I lamented the possibility of parents mistaking Ikea’s warning for a rule because they might follow it. Well they might, though, because it seems a no more far-fetched notion that someone else might enforce it. Although the story has a relatively happy (or at least just) ending, Maryland made big news a couple years ago when CPS got involved with a family who allowed their 10 and 6 year-olds to walk home from a park unsupervised. Plenty of other recent stories appear to show regulations on the ages kids may be allowed to walk, play, or use bathrooms alone. And so it seems we have parents being punished–facing the threat of losing their kids, even–for exposing their children to the possibility of danger, even when no actual danger was demonstrably present, no harm came to the child, and the statistical chances of the child being in any real danger were laughably low.

Of course there are potential dangers in letting kids play unsupervised, cross the street on their own, or climb in and out of a four and a half foot high lofted bed. But the fact is that these dangers are measurable, through statistics, and are mostly very, very low. What cannot be measured, but can be assured, is the harm done to children’s development and confidence when they are deprived of independence and the ability to measure and take their own risks–or, conversely, the benefit of being granted these things.

Since people love zombie apocalypse scenarios (almost as much as they love being told what to do), let’s think of it this way: how would the children we’re raising fare in a Walking Dead situation? Would they know how to locate and use resources? Would they be able to realistically calculate and prepare for the dangers of a “food run”? Or, indoctrinated to dependence and unable to manage risk, would they cower alone and starve despite an abundance of relatively safe opportunities to gather supplies? Or run headlong into danger and meet a much swifter end?

While zombie outbreaks are the stuff of TV and video games, the world in which our children will become adults will likely be just that different, and that quickly changing, from the world we know. Moreso than any previous generation, they will need to rely on independent, flexible, and imaginative thinking. But they’ll have a hard time developing any of that if we don’t start using it first.

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