73. Safety

Every year I taught second grade in Wellesley, we took children to Nahant to explore the tidepools. They loved that field trip, and it was a great way to close our unit on ocean life. But there was something else going on in the mind of at least one nervous teacher. I counted the number of children we started out with. I counted again every ten minutes. I got nervous when one child was behind a rock. I counted when we got back on the bus. I considered it a successful field trip if we ended up with as many children as we started out with.
I’m pretty sure I was more nervous about doctors than about lawyers; I wanted the children to live to be adults. In sixteen years of teaching the second graders of Wellesley, the worst thing I saw in Nahant was a scraped forehead. The best thing I saw there was a child discovering one of the creatures of a tidepool, observing it, discussing observations with other children or one of the adults. I saw that often, and I saw very few scrapes. But I never stopped being nervous.
Children often think we’re silly to be nervous. They know they won’t get hurt. If they do get hurt, they know next time they won’t. And they certainly won’t die; they’ve never done that. As far as immortality, they have a perfect record. So they think any safety rules we come up with are only there to stop us from being nervous and make sure they don’t have fun.
Safety is the one issue that brings out the authoritarian in me. Instead of “I’d rather not have you run on the rocks, because the seaweed is very slippery, and you could get hurt,” it’s “DON’T RUN ON THE ROCKS!” I’ve already given the non-authoritarian explanation in class. If a child runs on the rocks, that child stays with me, not exploring the tidepools.
Every adult I know has a different idea of what is safe for children. There are things I’ve seen adults allow that scare the bizelfers out of me. There are other adults who think I should set more limits to keep children safe.
I have known many children who have liked to do things I’ve considered risky. I have seen them slip, fall, and get hurt. I’ve seen them fall out of trees. They’re very resilient; of course they’ll get hurt sometimes, but you can’t live your whole life just trying not to get hurt. They have the right to decide to take risks. And I have the right to worry about it.

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