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Parents urge kids to live on the wild side

"Family Life" column, distributed by Reuters

On recent family trip to Denmark, wife and I loved how dangerous everything was—perilous play equipment, no bike helmets, creaky amusement park rides. Got me thinking about sanctity of safety among parents at home and recent books that celebrate virtues of sketchy situations for kids…

In an era when parents agree on so little, from birthing plans to college admission strategies, we can all at least agree on one thing: safety.

Keeping our kids safe from harm, after all, is a value that transcends the usual traditional-progressive divide. It doesn’t matter if you’re a strict disciplinarian who closely regulates your kids’ moral development or a groovy “alternaparent” who pays more attention to their iTunes downloads, you don’t skimp on safety.

Hence the preponderance of padded playgrounds and bike helmets, Internet parental controls and, in perhaps the most visible sign of our collective thinking about raising kids, the scarcity of children left unattended outside to play.

But now, at last, that single remaining shared value is crumbling. Parents are now rethinking pricy babyproofing gear and school bans on tag and other “chase games.” Many are taking their cue from bestsellers like The Dangerous Book for Boys and the Daring Book for Girls and shooing their kids off the couch to go build a campfire or cut flint heads for a bow and arrow.

A few are even forgoing the usual birthday gifts of fancy gadgets in favor of - gasp - pocket knives.

Suddenly, safety is passé.

As counterintuitive as it may seem, our kids will be all the better for it. Children need risk, hardship and periodic jolts of pain to develop into self-reliant grown-ups. Parents who constantly remove obstacles and eliminate perceived dangers - from smearing their little hands with antibacterial gel six times a day to prohibiting them from going to the bathroom or the corner store by themselves - are doing their kids a deep disservice.

Most parents know this, of course. But it’s easy to forget in a time when threats are broadcast from every corner, from the partially hydrogenated oils in food to the “stranger danger” on the street. At a certain point, however, parents inevitably get worn down by the bombardment and must finally learn to prioritize their anxieties.

In other words, while fencing the swimming pool and insisting you know your teenager’s whereabouts are reasonable parental controls, there comes a time when it no longer makes sense to X-ray your kids’ Halloween candy, ban all Internet use for fear of cyberpredators or do your kids’ homework because they’re so stressed out.

Clinical psychologist Wendy Mogel was among the first to describe this modern strain of overprotection in her invaluable 2001 book The Blessing of a Skinned Knee. Too many modern parents, she wrote, try to “inoculate their children against the pain of life” and end up with insecure, demanding, dependent kids.

Mogel’s prescription is a mix of old-school traditionalism and a more modern strain of compassion - she advises parents to limit the time spent worrying about kids to 20 minutes a day, treat bumps and injuries matter-of-factly, and stop attempting to shield children from the ugly and unpleasant facts of life.

The same basic spirit has fueled the runaway success of the Dangerous Book for Boys, Conn and Hal Iggulden’s politically incorrect and determinedly old-fashioned manual for mini macho men. Packed with such apparently arcane tips as how to hunt and cook rabbit and make a good go-cart, the book was a mammoth bestseller in the U.K. in 2006 and was modified for an even more successful U.S. edition last year.

It has since spawned a companion book for girls (which advises girls how to change a tire, build a fire and even press flowers) and led to a TV development deal and a bidding war over movie rights.

The phenomenon proves that kids and parents are desperate, Conn Iggulden wrote in the Washinton Post, to “remember a time when danger wasn’t a dirty word. It’s safer to put a boy in front of a PlayStation for a while, but not in the long run. The irony of making boys’ lives too safe is that later they take worse risks on their own.”

With so many families now rushing to rediscover the joys of sharp objects and sticky situations, it’s easy to imagine the pendulum swinging all the way back into the sort of perilous territory where little thought was given to such legitimate dangers as car crashes and second hand smoke. But for now anyway, our kids will benefit a lot more if we stop trying to protect them from the inevitable pain of being alive.

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