Why Kids Need to Climb Trees

CC BY 2.0. Tom Edgington -- This may be a parent's nightmare, but what if the boy has a right to do this?

A London council's proposal to fine kids £500 for climbing trees sparks debate over children's rights to freedom of movement and why adults think they can block it.

When I pick up my kids from school, they often ask to continue playing in the yard. There's a wonderful old cedar tree that they love to climb and during school hours they're not allowed to climb it. Once they're back under my supervision, however, I let them climb to their heart's content.

I do it for a few reasons. It's fun, and now's the time in their young lives to do all the climbing they can; it won't get any easier. It's also important for their development, both physical and psychological; the thrill that accompanies the fear is a good lesson. Yet another part of me lets them climb because I want to make a statement. The more people who see it, the more I hope adventurous outdoor behavior will become normalized.

Once we've been out there for a few minutes, the after-school daycare kids come out to play. They cluster around the base of the tree, staring up longingly at my children who are clinging like monkeys to branches 15 feet in the air. "I want to climb! Can you lift me up?" they beg me. Sadly, I explain that I cannot. The supervisor is usually hollering at them to move away, that the tree is off limits, that they could get hurt.

It is so very sad to tell children they cannot climb a tree. It's like telling a kid not to run, not to sing, not to jump for joy, or (pardon the simile) like telling a dog not to bark or wag its tail. These are such natural behaviors, and yet these childlike instincts are under siege throughout our entire society.

Consider the stunning example of the London borough of Wandsworth, whose councillors recently put forward a set of killjoy rules that will severely hamper children's ability to play outside in public parks. The council is overhauling its century-old park rules and replacing them with 49 new ones that would make the most extreme helicopter parent proud.

The worst is a £500 fine for climbing trees -- in other words, for acting like a normal 7-year-old. As the Evening Standard reports:

"Children in Wandsworth clambering up an oak or a maple without 'reasonable excuse' will face the wrath of park police under a new set of rules governing behaviour in its 39 open spaces."

These ludicrous rules extend to flying kites, playing cricket, and using remote-controlled boats on ponds, among others. The idea is that these are "anti-social behaviors" and that anything that could be annoying to others must be made illegal. The rules would be enforced by "civilian park police -- who dress like the Met officers with a kit of stab vests, handcuffs and bodycams, but lack their powers."

What has the world come to when a kid is not only told to get out of a tree, but is even fined for doing so? And where is that immense sum of money supposed to come from? Surely the council doesn't think kids have that kind of money in their piggy banks. It would end up coming from parents, which -- as any experienced parent will tell you -- is a huge no-no if the point is to teach consequences to a kid.

But mostly this raises red flags for me as to what constitutes a child's right to behave in a certain way. Regulations, whether issued in the name of safety or social decorum, have reached the point where they are failing to protect our children and are doing a far better job of ruining their lives. We, as adults, have to start to understand that children have rights of their own -- fundamental rights to behave as children are naturally inclined to, within reason -- even if it makes us uncomfortable.

To be clear, I am not talking about poor behavior. No one should have to tolerate an unpleasant, untrained child; but this is about a basic freedom of movement. I liked how Sara Zaske put it in her book about German parenting, Achtung Baby:

"We've created a culture of control. In the same of safety and academic achievement, we have stripped kids of fundamental rights and freedoms: the freedom to move, to be alone for even a few minutes, to take risks, to play, to think for themselves -- and it's not just parents who are doing this. It's culture-wide. It's the schools, which have cut or minimized recess or free play and control children's time even at home by assigning hours of homework. It's the intense sports teams and extracurricular activities that fill up children's evening and weekends. It's our exaggerated media that makes it seem like a child can be abducted by a stranger at any time -- when in reality such kidnappings are extremely rare."

As Zaske writes, we have gone beyond helicopter parenting now. "The helicopters have landed. The army is on the ground, and our children are surrounded by people trying to control them."

It's freaky when you think of it like that, isn't it? And yet, if we parents refuse our children's requests to climb trees, to play in muddy puddles, to walk home alone, to use a sharp knife, to light matches, we are just another cog in that army's wheel.

So, the next time your kid asks to do something that's not perfectly contained in metaphorical bubble wrap, don't think of it in terms of whether or not s/he could get hurt or whether there's potential for litigation. Instead, consider how you might be impinging on his or her right to experience certain physical challenges at this stage in life if you say no. Defend a kid's right to be a kid.

I think the tree-climbing is paying off. Last week a small boy and his mother walked past and he begged her to let him climb. She looked worried, but agreed to lift him into the tree to follow the other boys. She looked at me and said, "I'm scared to let him do this," but I smiled back and said, "It's the best thing for him." She relaxed slightly, and when he came down, his smile was as wide as his face. So was hers.