I watched my two and four year old sons ascend the ladder of the tall slide. Twenty, twenty-five feet? Metal and a steep grade; this slide survived from the early days when playgrounds were actually pretty exciting, a place where you could feel a thrill of adrenaline-pumping weightlessness as you peaked the arc of the giant swings and hovered there, lifting out of the rubber saddle, gasping. Sometimes you let go and went flying through the air, attempting to stick your landing, or at least not get your wind knocked out.
I lay back on the sun-warmed merry-go-round and watched the heavens circle above me. Memories of white-knuckled thrill rides, holding on for dear life while centrifugal force tried to turn all of us wide-eyed kids into projectiles, sometimes succeeding, were as vivid as the smell of the chipping hot paint beneath me.
There was a high look-out platform at my elementary school, accessible by climbing a network of intersecting chains, clambering over the top edge, and standing with a simple rail between us and a bone-shattering fall. There were rumors about kids who’d fallen to their possible deaths, but I don’t think anyone got seriously hurt on it. We loved leaning over that rail, mentally picturing the ground zooming up at us, feeling butterflies of fear in our stomachs.
My children use playground equipment improperly.
If the spiral slide is too slow and not long enough, they’ll climb on top of the outside of it to challenge themselves; to seek that line between pushing away fear and holding back from foolishness. To test their balance, their nerve, their ability. If the swings are too low to achieve a good speed and height, they’ll climb the support poles and walk across the tops. And when we find a precious vintage playground with merry-go-rounds, calf-crunching teeter totters, and high swings? They’re in their glory, even if, and sometimes especially if, they get hurt a bit.
It’s been discussed quite a bit among those who study such; how managed risk helps to make kids safer. How tame, “safe” playgrounds are simply boring for kids. How kids who’ve never been allowed to test their limits are highly vulnerable to real dangers. I think about that as I watch mothers forming an admonishing, controlling ring of managers around the merry-go-round. The kids are made to stop the whole thing for each approaching kid to get on, and then painfully slowly they are given a light push, only to stop a moment later when the understandably bored kids want off. When all their kids got off and they walked off to monitor other play with the same exacting interference, my kids got on. The two year old hovered beside the spinning structure, tentatively reaching out and pulling back his hands as he gauged which bracket to grab. He reached and his chubby legs pumped hilariously fast as he sought to retain hold, and he hefted himself inside, grasping for a handhold against the outward force. He made it, and he smiled. Moments later he misjudged and tumbled off; a scuffed knee and dull pain told him all he needed to know for next time. Moms exchanged glances; I imagine that they thought there was some slacker of a mom around who’d let such shenanigans happen without stepping in.
I gently lift the upper cover of each beehive, wafting smoke down through the inner cover’s vent hole. I pry apart the structure, box by box, moving slowly, avoiding bumps and bangs. Bees overflow and land all over me, some hovering at my bee veil. Stings hurt. A lot. That pain informs the way I move, even the way I breathe. It has made me a better beekeeper, and a safer one.
There are no compromise times for me though; parking lots, streets, when I’m working with lye to make soap, when I’ve got a boiling canner going, when I deeply distrust a stranger hanging out near my kids; then the red flags are waving madly and I’m on high alert, and I’ll grip their hands just as white-knuckled as I’d held on to the merry-go-round bars as a kid. But that fear all the time? No.
Sometimes things appear more dangerous than they actually are. In Machu Pichu I posed for this picture which seems like a giant drop-off into the steep canyon below, but there was actually another terrace below me (and then the death plummet). It took me a while to handle with some peace my older children being able to walk around town unaccompanied. I imagined every creepy guy I’d ever seen, every wild driver, every scenario of disaster. But what actually happens is that my kids experience new freedom and a sense of themselves in the world. They purchase candy from the gas station and test their balance on low stone edge walls. They talk to townsfolk. They look both ways without me telling them to.
I don’t get a guarantee that they’ll be safe, only that they’ll have truly lived; a gift most of us grew up with, riding our bikes “no hands” on summer evenings.