Safe Playgrounds and Safe Sex

The hairdresser at Supercuts always gasps when she gives my son his summer buzz cut, revealing a horrible maze of scars. He looks like a vet who’s encountered one too many IEDs—but in fact, his scars were won through nine years of terrifying encounters with such perilous items as dining room chairs, upholstered couches, wooden nightstands—and, one memorable Halloween, a treacherous sidewalk that leaped up without warning and attacked him for no reason at all.

I have to admit, though, he rarely gets hurt at playgrounds. This is because most of the local playgrounds are utterly pathetic. They look like the physical therapy unit at The Psychoneurotic Institute for the Very, VERY Nervous.

Most modern playgrounds do not have swings. One briefly sported a bizarre, enclosed see-saw of sorts (it didn’t actually go up or down; it performed a gingerly, embarrassing bouncing action), but this was soon replaced with some kind of low-grade balance mushrooms. Merry-go-rounds are out; concrete tunnels are out. Anything with chains, hinges, or unpredictable or full-range motion is out.

Many have updated, bowdlerized versions of activities formerly known as “fun”—everything is enclosed, padded, curved, and designed for limited motion. By gum, when we were little, centrifugal force and acceleration, momentum and gravity were our playthings! Today’s playground features look like fun, but don’t allow the kids to do anything but perch and wobble, demonstrating only the tamest and most obscure laws of physics.

I take heart from this New York Times story about a recent backlash against the hyper-safety of modern playgrounds. And I think they’re onto something that’s true for more than play: Most things that are worthwhile are often slightly dangerous, and can cause you pain as well as joy. The idea is not to avoid or neuter them, but to embrace them, and to learn from them.

In fact, if you go through the NYT playground article and substitute the word “sex” for the word “play,” and substitute “contraception” for “safety,” you’ll hear the same points that Jennifer Fulwiler made in her recent posts about NFP and contraception: first, that there are worse things than a little risk. Jen said:

[Catholic women] joked that that some of their children were more expected than others, and made passing comments about sometimes being surprised by seeing two lines on pregnancy tests. And here was the crazy part: None of this seemed to ruin their lives. In fact, they seemed pretty happy!

and the playground article says:

[F]alls are the common form of playground injury. But these rarely cause permanent damage, either physically or emotionally. While some psychologists — and many parents — have worried that a child who suffered a bad fall would develop a fear of heights, studies have shown the opposite pattern: A child who’s hurt in a fall before the age of 9 is less likely as a teenager to have a fear of heights.


Even if children do suffer fewer physical injuries — and the evidence for that is debatable — the critics say that these [ultra-safe] playgrounds may stunt emotional development, leaving children with anxieties and fears that are ultimately worse than a broken bone.

Jen points out that contraception is not as easy and failproof as it’s promoted to be, and has its own psychological and emotional pitfalls as well; and the playground article reports:

“There is no clear evidence that playground safety measures have lowered the average risk on playgrounds,” said David Ball, a professor of risk management at Middlesex University in London. He noted that the risk of some injuries, like long fractures of the arm, actually increased after the introduction of softer surfaces on playgrounds in Britain and Australia.

“This sounds counterintuitive, but it shouldn’t, because it is a common phenomenon,” Dr. Ball said. “If children and parents believe they are in an environment which is safer than it actually is, they will take more risks. An argument against softer surfacing is that children think it is safe, but because they don’t understand its properties, they overrate its performance.”

Think about how most modern couples view sex. “They don’t understand its properties” would be the understatement of the century. 

Jen says:

We live in a fallen world, and the arena of human sexuality is one of places where the fallenness manifests itself most intensely. [The couple who gave up NFP] were right that NFP is hard; they were just wrong to think that contraception offers a solution.

Yep. Look for ultimate safety all the time, and you not only miss out on valuable experiences and essential pleasures, but you don’t even end up being all that safe. When people struggle with NFP or with contraception, what they’re really struggling with is the nature of human sexuality, with its mystery and messiness, its joy and its pain. That’s the system they have a problem with. Contraception doesn’t take the struggle away; it just disguises it with a dangerous illusion of safety.

Come to think of it, the Supercuts hairdresser who gasped at my son’s head scars also gasped when she heard I was pregnant with baby #9. And yet here we are, scars, babies, and all. We’ve had some scares and some injuries, but nobody’s died yet. And yes, we are happy.