In the NYT, John Tierney unloads this week on playground equipment, which in his view is not high enough or dangerous enough and is contributing to the weak moral fiber of These Kids Today. Kids need to break their arms more, because breaking your arm and getting over it is part of growing up.
Even if children do suffer fewer physical injuries — and the evidence for that is debatable — the critics say that these playgrounds may stunt emotional development, leaving children with anxieties and fears that are ultimately worse than a broken bone…. Sometimes, of course, their mastery fails, and falls 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.
This article is more annoying than Tierney’s usual schtick, because this time I agree with his overall psychological stance. I’m on board with the CBT model of phobia treatment, in which you attenuate a fear by graduated exposure. I watch CJ struggle with things that scare him all the time, and I share his pride when he handles them.
That said, I think it’s premature to worry that you’re letting your kids grow up underfractured. Tierney declines to say what “studies” he’s referring to above, but I’m pretty sure it’s Evidence for a non-associative model of the acquisition of a fear of heights, a 1998 paper in Behavior Research and Therapy by R. Poulton et al. It’s a good paper! But let’s look at what it really says. They used data from a longitudinal study to see what relation, if any, there was between severe falls early in life and fear of heights later. What they found was this. A fall before age 5 didn’t significantly affect fear of heights at age 11. A fall before age 5 also didn’t significantly affect fear of heights at age 18. Also, a fall between the ages of 5 and 9 didn’t significantly affect fear of heights at age 11. But there was a significant negative association between falls between the ages of 5 and 9 and fear of heights at age 18.
That’s pretty far from “safe playgrounds stunt kids’ growth.” All the more so when you stop to think that there might be other reasons that kids who were fearless about heights at 18 might have broken their arms more as kids. Maybe they were fearless about heights to start with! The authors of the study explicitly raise this possibility. Tierney does not — strangely, considering how much he digs innate biological explanations when it’s time to explain where all the women math professors are.