Safety without Safetyism

Note: Understandings of and expectations for student safety will vary by community. Some of the activities and policies recommended in this post may not be advisable in your school setting.

In the last few decades, school safety has become a huge talking point—and with good reason. News of school shootings and other violence in schools no longer surprises us. In the school where I teach, we have taken various steps in recent years to make our school more secure, and school safety has been a subject of concern for some of the parents. Though I long for the freer, more innocent days of bygone years, I do see the prudence in various safety measures that would scarcely even have entered the minds of parents or teachers fifty years ago. At the same time, I believe it is vital to the well-being of our children that we avoid an obsession with safety on every front, and I believe it is possible to have our schools and communities become too safe.

In the book The Coddling of the American Mind*, authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt provide a thoughtful analysis of the way a hyper-focus on safety—both physical and emotional—has been detrimental to an entire generation of American young people. They have coined the term “safetyism” for what they describe as the cult of safety, which is “an obsession with eliminating threats (both real and imagined) to the point at which people become unwilling to make reasonable trade-offs demanded by other practical and moral concerns.”

Citing various studies, the authors describe how the rise in allergies in developed countries has happened because children are no longer exposed to a wide range of bacteria and pathogens, so their immune systems fail to develop properly. This same idea carries over into many other aspects of life: Trying too hard to keep children safe harms them in the long run. Strong immune systems are developed by exposure to germs. Healthy bones and muscles are strengthened by strain. Mental and emotional health develop through challenges.

For children to mature properly into confident adults, they need a healthy amount of risk and adversity**. Lukianoff and Haidt use the term “antifragile” to describe this. Fragile things must be handled with care. Resilient things do not break, but they are not necessarily improved by the wear. “Antifragility” is one step above resilience because things in this category are strengthened and enhanced by risks and stressors.

In the chapter “Wiser Kids,” the authors outline suggestions for raising children who are not only resilient but antifragile. Though not written from a Christian perspective, many of the ideas overlap with biblical truth and what might be called old-fashioned common sense. One section written especially for schools suggests more recess with less supervision. Also, the need to teach healthy debate and conflict resolution is emphasized as the antidote to emotional fragility.

How can we keep our children reasonably safe without creating a climate of safetyism? In practical terms, how should this play out in our schools?

In our small Christian schools, we do not face the extreme liability that teachers in public schools have. This is not to say that we should be reckless, of course. But we do need to handle carefully both the freedom and the responsibility that we possess. The knee-jerk reaction to an injury or some other breach of safety at school can be to establish more rules in an effort to keep the same thing from happening again. But I think we need to be cautious about this. As the authors of The Coddling of the American Mind tell us, the epitome of safetyism is this: “If we can keep one child from getting hurt, we should deprive all children of slightly risky play.” But what if most children will actually benefit from those risks?

In my school, we have a rather loosely supervised lunch period. The students are allowed to eat their lunches in a variety of places, and children in all grades freely roam the playground, hallways, and gym. We teachers mingle with them, of course, but we cannot be everywhere. An incident that occurred a few years ago led us to question this practice. Yet we concluded that the positive school culture fostered in part by this unstructured interaction among the students across grade levels was worth the possible risks it entails.

When I see my students climbing on top of the swing set or climbing the tall chain-link fence at the edge of the playground, I do not tell them to come down. Eight-year-olds are old enough to do that sort of thing. I also try to resist the temptation to micromanage my students, particularly during recess. I am not quick to intervene when I see a scuffle or argument, because children need to learn how to manage conflict on their own. We may talk about it later, back in the classroom. Good conflict resolution should be part of the everyday things we teach, and we can talk through scenarios and help students think about what they could do in a given situation. It is also important to teach children to know when they should get the help of an adult and when they should try to work things out on their own.

Children are precious, and we want them to be safe and secure in every way possible. But when we Christians bow to the idol of safetyism, we are ultimately trying to seize control that should be left in God’s hands. The greatest safety features our schools can have are prayer and trust in God’s protection.  

*Though I have drawn heavily from the book for this post, my aim is not necessarily to provide an in-depth summary or book review. I am only highlighting the parts that are most relevant to us as schoolteachers.

**This refers, of course, to ordinary childhood adversity. The book authors acknowledge that there are limits to this. Major trauma, abuse, or neglect are a different story.

Photo by Jessica Tan on Unsplash.


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