Toxic Security: Feeling Safe vs Being Safe

Feeling Full

In 2016 premier medical journal, the Lancet, reported that obesity had become a bigger global problem than malnutrition. There are now more obese people than underfed people. Hunger, the great scourge of humankind, is on its way out.

Malnutrition has been a problem for humans for as long as humans have existed. Malnutrition is still a problem now, especially for people in unstable countries and war zones.  But malnutrition is not a problem for most, even those outside of the First World. Even though we are evolved to seek out food, especially sweet, fatty, and salty food that was scarce in our past, we don’t aspire to make sure our kids always feel full.

Clearly, not eating enough food is bad. Kids in deprived countries have a right to eat enough. And feeling full feels nice. But it’s not essential for our survival to feel full always. It’s actually important for well-functioning metabolism to feel hungry at least sometimes.

Feeling Safe

My daughter’s afterschool care recently sent me a survey to complete. The survey description stated, amongst other things, that it would investigate whether or not my child “feels safe” at the centre. What difference does it make if kids feel safe, I thought? Shouldn’t we care more if kids are safe?

Because kids are an especially vulnerable group.

In the heyday of the Roman empire, a relatively stable and well-fed part of the ancient world, a newborn only had 50% chance of reaching age 10. Once arriving at this age, they had a decent chance of attaining a ripe old age. Throughout history, the riskiest years were childhood. Kids have historically been vulnerable to accidents, diseases and the evil intentions of adults. Throughout history kids have had every reason to feel unsafe.

But kids aren’t especially unsafe in most of countries these days, and this is especially true for developed countries.

Why should we try to eradicate the feeling of being unsafe? Does it make as much sense as trying to eradicate the feeling of hunger?

Kids have always been especially vulnerable. Their emotional systems are especially geared towards feeling unsafe – they are evolved to feel unsafe. “Unsafe” was child reality for countless generations. Just as kids feel an urge for ultra-sweet food, so they feel an urge to feel ultra-safe. We take this urge ultra-seriously to their detriment.

I hear some ask: Are you seriously claiming that we shouldn’t care about the feelings of children?

Well, not quite…

Non-Toxic Security

In a safe world, we should still care about kids’ feelings of security.

There is another type of security that we should care very much about. Secure attachment, which starts from babyhood, is the mental health gift that keeps giving. Secure attachment is attained by having consistent presence of care givers. This might come from various individuals for example grandparents, daycare staff etc. But typically, it comes from parents.

Consistent, stable attachments to caregivers and care workers is very beneficial for children’s well-being. We should try to optimise these relationships. These relationships, this deep contact, leaves children feeling secure right through to adulthood.

Schools, daycares and other child-focussed places should very much care about this aspect of security.

Toxic Security

On the other hand, removing all risks from children’s lives does not leave them feeling safe.

Childhood exposure to mild risks fortifies children. Exposure to mild feelings of danger teach children self-confidence. Failure is defragilising.

On the other hand, too much security is toxic. It leads to an unconscious expectation that life will always be stable or positive. And it won’t. And when it won’t, it will really hurt coddled kidults.

And this has political consequences as well. New researcher have found that Helicopter Parents are more likely to support paternalistic policies, regardless of whether they identify as left or right wing politically.

So, what about the afterschool-care, should they drop questions about “feeling safe”?  

They certainly should care about emotional security. Keeping long-term staff, consistent rules and procedures can help kids feel securely attached.

But they shouldn’t try to eradicate discomfort from children’s lives, and they certainly shouldn’t encourage the idea, amongst children and parents, that its desirable to always feel safe. Perhaps we need a new word to describe emotional (attachment-based) security. It gets too mixed up with “safetyism” and never-ending quest to evict risks, no matter how small, from the lives of youngsters.

And we can all help this process by guarding against the language of “feeling safe”.

Ask kids: Do you trust the adults around you? Or, Would you feel comfortable asking for help if you needed it? Or, is there at least one person at (school/daycare) that you could rely on?

Just don’t ask “do you feel safe?”

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