The narrative of safety weaves itself through our society like so much fluorescent orange barrier mesh. Watch out! Don’t go there! I wouldn’t if I were you! It’s a narrative reinforced and retold by our governments, the media, and by us.
As a mother of young children, with nearly every trip out into the big, wild, world I’m warned against cracks in footpaths, pram buckles and levers, car seats, trees – apparently they threaten to throw branches at any time in the botanic equivalent of spontaneous combustion – other cars, supermarket trolleys, dogs, buses, people. Safety warnings embroider the lives of my generation like paisley did to the ‘70s.
Kids, apparently, are death and injury waiting to happen.
Take my son’s primary school: twenty-five years ago – when my 3 siblings and I were students of the school – the front boundary was lined by a simple pine pole fence, about a foot off the ground, the perfect height for a child to park themselves while waiting to be picked up after school. The school now sports a 1200 mm high wire mesh fence. The new fence is fine: where we get ridiculous is beyond this fence. There is a second fence bracketing the opening to the manned school crossing.
This school is far removed from the town’s shops and businesses, nestled in a quiet, leafy residential neighbourhood, about 1 kilometre up the hill from the village and the main roads, accessible only by a loop road. The only people who drive this particular section of loop road at school drop off and pick up times are parents – parents of school children, who are also dropping off and picking up children. In essence, this second line of fence is defending kids from their own parents. Does this teach good road sense? Or just fear?
This hyper-vigilance about safety gives us all the false impression that we can prevent ourselves from dying simply through wilful diligence. If we all hold hands and don’t move, we can allude death. It’s superstition masquerading as ‘commonsense’. Really, it’s not commonsense, it’s the middle class equivalent of holding your breath as you pass the cemetery.
Real commonsense comes to us through age and through years of childhood testing the boundaries of our environment and ourselves: we learn action and consequence, and through a process of elimination, soon figure out what to do and what not to do. Not allowing our children to develop that on their own does little to develop their resilience, imagination and independence.
Our local council-owned playground, opposite the school, sports two large (500 x 500 mm) yellow road signs that warn “PEDESTRIANS WATCH YOUR STEP” as they cross the low wooden footbridge that spans the threshold between the concrete footpath and park proper. The pine bridge is occasionally slippery because of dew or rain, but do we really need not one, but two half-metre-squared signs warning us of imminent injury? Whose ass are these signs protecting – mine or the council’s?
Despite the safety tape world we’ve created, kids intuitively know how to live. My 4-year-old son runs in the face of these safety message, cheerily trotting past them on the way to the swings. It helps that he can’t yet read.