Sunday, July 24, 2011

Monkey Bars, Meetings, and Finding Nemo

A recent article in the New York Times reminded me of something I haven't seen in years and the disappearance of which had gone unnoticed: real, honest-to-goodness monkey bars.

Sure, there were things for our kids to climb on when we took them to playgrounds in New Jersey, as there are when we take them to the ones here in Kentucky, but they are not the good, old fashioned monkey bars that took a good amount of strength, courage, and determination to reach the top. Perhaps the kids can climb on one thing or another, but they are never very high and there's usually a more easily accessible path to the top than making the ascent directly.

The other day, at a meeting with the other engineers on staff, the point was made (reiterated, really) that safety comes paramount to everything. The statement was then clarified that doing so should not prevent us from taking risks in improving the operations of the plant. Hearing and understanding the content of this meeting requires us, the engineers, to have developed a healthy sense of risk and risk management and an ability to weigh costs versus benefits, both real and intangible. If one of us has a malformed perception of risk, however, disaster could ensue. Lives are potentially on the line.

The juxtaposition of these two life moments, the meeting and the reading of the article, may truly be coincidental. Yet, we should ask, "what if..."

  • What if by lowering the highest point to which a child can climb is essentially lowering the bar of playground performance compresses the statistical distribution of how high they climb and preventing many--if not most--from learning to stretch their abilities?
  • What if by having the highest points on a playground be the ornamental roofs above platforms we encourage children who refuse to have their developing skills limited by safe design to stretch their abilities only by risking climbing surfaces that were not meant to be climbed?
  • What if, as far fetched as it seems, our safe culture (of which only a small part is safe playground culture) is skewing our children's ability to identify risk and that they are being raised to feel safe and free to do anything permitted because someone said they could?

I ask myself these questions:

  • Were people in general better or worse equipped to identify the risks associated with their money through the last 10 years?
  • Are incidences of poor judgement becoming standard news items with stories of teachers' improprieties, neglectful and/or abusive parents, and disastrous corporate decisions made at the top?
  • Are we too trusting, as a society, of the people we have placed in charge?

I, for one, enjoy seeing my children take risks. On playgrounds, our 3-year old is running through contraptions that claim to be designed for 5-year olds (which may just be an indication of age inflation for safety reasons). He's hesitant at first, usually, but overcomes his fears with a little encouragement. Our now-1-year old (Happy Birthday!), is learning to walk, which is perhaps the most dangerous act functional bipeds can attempt to master. To witness his wobbly form start to pull up and cruise on furniture is one thing, but to see the pride in his eyes when he does so successfully is quite another and absolutely priceless.

One of my favorite movies is Finding Nemo. I was not a father when I first watched it and admit to it having greater meaning when I watch it now as a parent. It went from being a nice story about an adventure a fish went through to rescue his only son, to a story of how a father overcomes the emotional baggage of having all but one of his offspring and his wife attacked and killed. The over-protective father has the line "You think you can do these things, but you just can't, Nemo!" He learns a lesson from Crush, the sea-turtle, talking about kids growing up: "Well, you never really know, but when they know, you know, y'know?"

Will they fall, be scraped and bruised, perhaps even broken in parts? Yes, probably. Will my wife survive? Stay tuned.

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