Nixing Managed Risk of Childhood Play Produces Wimps

Published by — Eliminating ‘managed risk’ from normal childhood play does a disservice to kids by sequestering them from life’s normal ups and downs.

When I was maybe, like 7 years old, I accidently broke Bill Kelly’s leg.

I’m guessing he was 12, maybe 13.

Three doors down from ours, the Kelly’s house teemed with neighborhood kids and their brood of 7. They’d set up croquet in their backyard. And I got it into my idiot head that I would hold onto the handle of one of the mallets and swing it round and round, enjoying the centrifugal pull of the mallet head. In the midst of my hands-on experiment with momentum, I lost my grip. The mallet flew. I heard Bill scream bloody murder and saw him go down.

Mortified, petrified, hysterical, I ran home, and when I could stop sobbing for a second, blurted out my crime to my parents. They were suitably alarmed. My dad went down the block to see what he could do.

While the grown-ups were buzzing about the incident, no big wave of fury crashed on me. In time I was marched down to apologize to Bill in front of his and my parents. Bill was rip-snortingly angry because his leg really hurt.

But most importantly, he couldn’t play baseball with a cast. The Kelly boys were sports nuts. I’m sure I gushed remorse, because my face gets hot with shame, to this day.

But that’s all that happened, such as I remember. Surely my parents paid the medical costs or settled up somehow. Surely the adults’ conversation was dark and concerned as they scrambled to care for Bill. I didn’t need retribution added to how stupid and awful I felt. My mother let me know she believed it was an unfortunate accident.

It was a hard lesson for all of us: Be careful. Be mindful. That lesson can’t be learned once and for all, like multiplication, but must be faced time and time again.

I’ll bet a point came when my parents and the Kellys had a good laugh, and perhaps a drink together. The families developed no tensions. Bill was back on the ballfields soon enough. The Steiny kids played at the Kelly’s house, and their kids at ours. Life went on.

In those days everyone assumed that stuff happened.

These days? Are you kidding? That could have been a massive law suit. That could have set off ugly tensions between the two families, perhaps infecting the swarm of neighborhood kids.

These days an amazing number of people assume that childhood should be scrubbed clean of broken legs, bruised egos and minor property damage. Communities teach children that they should not have to expect nor tolerate adversity. And in the event of accidents or even deliberate misbehavior, adults often turn to the problem-solving industry, the legal system – or some other authority with the power to impose retribution.

So parents, neighbors, schools and Departments of Parks and Recreation spend vast resources protecting themselves from litigation, in the name of protecting the children. You’re a lawsuit waiting to happen if you don’t practice zero tolerance towards foolish youthful behavior and the inevitable consequences of immaturity.

So kids do not learn managed risk. If kids never fall, how do they learn balance? If they never resolve their own heated disputes, how do they learn to deal with bullies? If they never make mistakes, how will they persist to real, hard-earned success? Childhood is the perfect time to suffer the minor consequences of getting dirty, getting hurt, and losing one’s temper.

What is childhood without managed risk?

Well, poor training, for one thing. Kids arrive at the school door with less and less common sense. Beyond organized sports and electronics, they know nothing of the kind of playing that includes banging wood together, roaming the neighborhood, breaking something or, sigh, accidently hurting someone.

In a recent study by the University of Michigan’s School of Social Work, college officials report that students’ demand for mental-health services is soaring. These are the youth who have survived our educational system and have enough family support to get them to college. But even they now arrive at college fragile from over-protection and clueless about managing the big world in front of them. They have little resilience and no notion how to deal with a crabby roommate.

Consider that nationally SAT scores have declined, the NAEPs have been flat, and the states’ local testing programs show remarkably little progress. Yes, the quality of schools is part of the problem. But we’re asking the great majority of kids to build their understanding of Algebra I and the scientific method on a clueless foundation of protected and manufactured experiences. Organized sports, T.V., and video games do not teach creativity, resourcefulness or how to resolve disputes without adult intervention.

The fear of liability is not keeping the kids safe at all, but making them stupid with lack of everyday, knockabout experience. Put up with the occasional broken leg. And get real. Bullying will never go away. All of us need to learn the skills and confidence to manage social challenges.

Adversity is life. We’re sparing kids the work of learning to deal with life.

And just for the record: the most dangerous thing a kid can do is get in your car with you, even properly secured.

I’m pretty sure Bill became a successful doctor. Absolutely no worse the wear. And my accident was just a good story and big lesson for our ‘hood.

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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