Safety, Stuff, and Simplicity

What do you do to help make things more safe for your children? I will assume that you've told them to look both ways before they cross the street, or to not run with scissors, or to not take candy from strangers. But that's not what I'm talking about. What have you done to ensure that your children have a safe place in which to learn; not only safe from physical harm, but safe from consequences so severe that they would inhibit further exploration? For that matter, what have you done to ensure that your children can learn in freedom while being safe from your anger or your judgment?

A number of years ago, we "invented" a game in which we ball up our socks and throw them at each other as a kind of indoor snowball fight. Over the years, the snowballs have become larger and larger, and have been thrown harder and harder, often toward sensitive places. When we first began playing, our room was like a typical bedroom from any other home: pictures on the walls, glass vases, nice drapes, etc. We also used to play a game called "family ball" in which we would take a very soft plush ball and play indoor soccer or handball. Even when the boys were young, these games would get pretty fast and energetic, with the ball flying every which way. And again, our living room was a typical: pictures on the walls, vases, a TV, a Wii, computers - you name it, we had it.

What do these games have in common? They involve projectiles of some type, flying through the air in directions and at speeds that are hard to predict and hard to control. They involve plenty of learning, if you're into that sort of thing. And they also serve as a wonderful source of physical activity on days when we need or want to stay indoors.

But they also both involve potential "dangers" that might make it "unsafe" for my children to live and learn in freedom - vases, televisions, pictures, and computers which generally do not respond well to being knocked around.But I'm not really talking about the dangers of broken glass or falling objects.

I'm talking about the danger from parental anger or judgment should something break.

Think about it. In most traditional houses, children would not be allowed to throw socks, play soccer, or shoot nerf guns inside. When questioned - "Why can't we play ball in the house, Daddy?" - the parents are likely to say "Because it's too messy" or "Because it's not safe." These default responses will, over time, condition the children to simply obey. But I wonder what the answers would be if the kids were able to dig deeper. Imagine if the children could ask how it would make things messy, or or why a mess is so bad. Imagine if they could ask how their safety would be impacted, or if there was some way to mitigate whatever risks were really there?

And then imagine if the adults would actually answer truthfully.

When we first started playing sock wars and family ball, our children were too young to ask us these kinds of questions, so we did what strong partners do and we asked them of ourselves and of each other. I am guessing that our reasons for saying "it's too messy" or "it's not safe" were the same as the answers for most other parents - because it was too messy for our taste, because we didn't want to have to clean it up ourselves, because we didn't want our stuff to be broken.

Now, I understand where these things come from. Most parents were raised and indoctrinated in a viewpoint that says that the house belongs to the parent ("under my roof", "when you pay the bills . . ."), and the children need to "partner" with the parent to keep the house orderly and clean, likely through some system of chores. After all, we spent years building up enough stability and money to be able to buy a house and all of the things in it, and we should be entitled to the expectation that our children respect our sacrifices and abide by the rules we set for how they should deal with our stuff. So, they should change their games and styles of play to adapt to the environment that we have built for them, dammit. Right?

Bull-SHIT. That's not partnering, and it's not parenting. It's possessiveness, because we are assuming that the stuff that we bought is ours. It's a restriction of learning, because we are restricting the ways in which they play. It's "head" parenting, as opposed to "heart parenting, because we are projecting our expectations onto our kids and assuming that we are entitled to have them respect our stuff.

Believe me, there is a better way. You can prevent your stuff from getting destroyed while still supporting and respecting your children as household partners. And it's actually pretty simple.

Put your stuff away.

For the sock wars and family balls games, we took all of our pictures of all the walls, and all of our breakables off the tables. We put the vases in the cupboard or in the kitchen. We put the lamps on the floor when we play. We put pillows on the dangerous corners. We recognized that our home is our home, and that everyone's stuff is equally important - and that playing ball or having sock wars in the house is important for us as a family. In short, we make the environement suitable for the game, rather than make the game suitable for the environment. Sometimes, this is challenging if not impossible; I can't support throwing knives at each other or bricks at the windows, although we can help them find safer places or targets. But helping them suit their environment for their needs in a family-oriented, equal manner has far-reaching benefits. Don't take my word for it; take Kade's.

Two night ago, while we were staying in a hotel room in Santa Nella, Kade wanted to watch Youtube on the laptop. He was tired; the chair was too big for him to cross his legs comfortably, and the laptop does not fit his lap. It was easy to see the likely result - laptop on the floor. I could have said "no, sit on the bed or at the desk", but he had made his decision about where he wanted to be. I could have forced him to change his game to suit his environment. Instead, I changed the environment for him and simply put a bunch of pillows on the floor beneath his feet.

Five minutes later, he began to doze and the laptop fell. I calmly and gently reached down, picked it up, and put it back on his lap. When he woke up, he smiled at me - with not a trace of guilt or worry on his face - and said "Daddy, you are always so generous with your things. Thank you for not getting mad at me for dropping the laptop."

How easy was that? I could have forced him to give up the laptop or move; I could have forced them to play outside where things would not break; I could have forced them to play a different game more suited to my preferences. Sometimes, in times of weakness, we still find ourselves there. But to do so negates their choices, their preferences, and their learning styles. It judges their decisions as "not good enough" and out of line with our expectations of them, and makes them far too cautious to try new things because our judgments hold such sway with them. Perhaps worst of all, it leads them to assume that our stuff - or in their eyes and my words, my stuff - is more important to me than they are.

As a parent, that is simply not good enough. It's not about you alone, it's about you together - a family - equal and respectful, with needs and viewpoints considered. Doing so helps build comfort that leads to connection, and confidence that leads to exploration. Creating safety for the stuff and the spirit is a great first step.


  1. "Perhaps worst of all, it leads them to assume that our stuff - or in their eyes and my words, my stuff - is more important to me than they are." Well said. Definitely something that is on my mind a lot, particularly with my dd who likes to draw and write on many different surfaces :) I love your suggestion to put our stuff away.

  2. This is brilliant. Sadly, so many parents can't see through to trying things this way. In fact I can hear typical arguments in my head, that such parenting is "over-permissive" or isn't "real world" or whatever. It's all shit, though. And you and I know this because we've been raising our kids this way and we see how much care and respect they afford our "things" - most especially because they know THEY, the children, are more important to us. It frees children up to operate out of kindess and strength rather than fear, enforced docility, and shame.

    I don't know how many times my children have come forward and apologized for something they broke or messed up. Their apologies were earnest and evidenced eye contact and genuine feeling (they are 6 and 8). They knew I wasn't going to flip out on them; they were not ashamed or fearful or feeling "Wrong". They were taking responsibility, plain and simple.

    I'm sure many of those who'd argue against our "over-permissive" ways haven't experienced the joys it brings.

  3. I have a half sister who happens to be 30 years younger than I am. A while back she draw with a black coki on my father's HUGE flatscreen TV (something like 55 inch, trust me it's a whole wall full of big). She received the hiding of her life. She's 2 years old. I was very upset when I heard this, firstly because this child does not know the value for money. She does not know the TV cost a lot and is now SLIGHTLY damaged (really, it's a corner of scribbles that could be cleaned and only displayed slight evidence).
    The second reason I was upset by this is because the person that this little girl trusts so completely, just hurt her and put the fear of hell into her FOR HER FATHER. This will be her life. I know because I've been there.
    My daughter is a year younger than this little girl. We let her roam free. There are some things she may not play with, but she understands this, simply because by and large she has the whole house at her disposal. We love her more than any TV or anything else. More than all the money in the world and we treat her accordingly.
    I loved your post.

  4. I love your thoughtfulness and willingness to self-examine as a Dad. So few are willing to look at and change themselves, rather than their children (except in unschooling circles, of course!).

    I've tweeted and reblogged a link to this post on my new blog:

  5. LOVE LOVE LOVE this! We have a big, open room downstairs with only a couple of breakables that still need to be moved. It's open, empty, and comfortable for play. We pillow fight, but I'm really enjoying your snowball fight idea! Thanks.

  6. I'm a little afraid to ask this question because I don't want to be attacked, so know that I am honestly interested, not putting down unschooling or anything like that. We are thinking about these things and would love to have a forum to openly talk about it, but I've found the unschooling world to be a little defensive and aggressive (and maybe they have reason to be.)

    Anyway, I get that kids are part of the household and have all the rights of everyone else in the household, but how do you find the balance between making things comfortable for them (pillows under the chair) and having things comfortable for you? I almost always put my kids first, but once in awhile need to think about my own needs. There doesn't seem to be room for that.

  7. Mel, I'm sorry that's been your experience with some unschoolers. Why don't you email me at and let me understand a bit more behind your question, and I'll see if I can answer it for you or offer some ideas that have helped us find balance.


  8. we have had sock wars for years! So glad to know we aren't the only ones. We push the furniture around to make forts and have at it. Such fun. Best memories for our children and for us!