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The halls of your local middle school are likely riddled with posters, banners and bulletin boards, all containing supposedly “motivational” and “informative” messages. If you can block out all of the horrible 12 year olds psychologically and physically tormenting each other, middle school hallways are very encouraging places.

There’s the poster with an image of an athletic young woman riding a bike, or climbing a mountain, emblazoned with the word “GOALS” or “ACHIEVEMENT.” There’s the perfunctory “DIVERSITY” banner, adorned with different colored hands clasped together across the globe.

Then there’s the requisite “Shoot for the moon! Even if you miss, you’ll be among the stars!” poster. It should be noted that this one, although commonplace, is reckless and horridly inaccurate from an astronomical perspective. Trust me, kids, if you shoot for the moon and miss — God help you. The people in Apollo 13 followed this advice, and look what happened to them. If you don’t land on the moon, you will NOT be “among the stars.” You will be approximately 90 MILLION MILES away from the nearest star, the Sun, and TRILLIONS of miles from the second closest, Proxima Centauri. Either way, you’re not even close.

And now you’ll be doomed to float aimlessly in the black, dead, vacuous abyss. Haven’t you seen Gravity? Eventually your oxygen will deplete and you’ll die slowly, alone, out in the unforgiving nothingness of space. If you’re lucky, a space rock will fly by, rip a hole in your suit, and your face will explode. At least then your death will be quick, even if it’s unimaginably painful. So, if you shoot for the moon you damn well better hit that thing. This is the real positive message for the youth: “Achieve your goals or die alone in the darkness.” Someone put that on a bumper sticker.

In any event, worse than this scientifically implausible cliché is that one motto that’s hammered into our heads from the time we take our first step, until we breathe our last breath: “Safety First!”

Safety first. Think about this. You’ve heard it a billion times; have you ever actually considered the implication of this deranged saying?

Safety first? FIRST? Safety before everything? There’s nothing more important than being safe? If that’s true, then we really shouldn’t be, like, doing anything. Ever. I saw a TLC special about a guy who lived by this mantra. He was a paranoid OCD schizophrenic; he locked himself in the bathroom for three years, washed his hands 400 times a day, and had food given to him under the crack in the door. Say what you want about the dude, but you can’t accuse him of putting anything but safety first. He was safe. His life was also miserable and pointless, but at least he succeeded in prolonging it.

I wanted to go skydiving a few years ago, so I started researching places online. I found a reputable skydiving business and perused it’s website. Sure enough, right there, front and center on the homepage: “Here at ____ Skydiving, our motto is ‘Safety First.'” I suppose this is meant to be soothing to potential clients, and, certainly, I want to do my skydiving with professionals who care about safety. But if you really put safety FIRST, wouldn’t you refuse to take anyone skydiving at all? The only thing safer than safe skydiving is not skydiving. In other words, if you’re skydiving, safety is not your top priority.

Safety should always be a consideration, but I’m not sure that it should ever be your primary concern. Yet we’ve increasingly adopted this catchphrase and it’s had exactly the sort of impact that you’d expect. “Safety First” is the most damaging exactly where it’s the most common: in the realm of child-raising; in the schools, in the daycares, at home. Gone are the days of teaching children to take healthy and rational risks; of encouraging them to run and jump and climb trees; of embracing their rough and tumble nature, particularly among young boys. Instead we’ve put Safety First, and now we have a generation of lazy, gelatinous couch potatoes — but at least they’re safe!

The latest from the Safety First front has the internet in quite a tizzy today: Weber Middle School in Long Island joined the War on Recess, and they’re coming out with the big guns. They’ve instituted a ban on footballs, baseballs, soccer balls, lacrosse balls; any sort of hard ball that might bump a precious child and cause a small bruise or skin abrasions of some sort. They’ve also outlawed tag and cartwheels, unless supervised. (Side note: somebody please start an indie band and call it The Supervised Cartwheels). The emergency room director at the local hospital has endorsed the move. He claims that he’s seen an uptick in “head injuries, bumps, scrapes.”

This, of course, leads one the following question: Who the hell brings their child to the emergency room for a bump or a scrape? We like to blame the schools for this sort of madness — Lord knows, I’m never hesitant to assign them their portion of the guilt when they deserve it — but the schools generally aren’t the ones shipping kids to the ER for a scraped knee. The schools also don’t sue themselves when Johnny falls off the swing and sprains his wrist. The schools aren’t instituting these policies because they want to; they’re doing it because the public forces them into it. Why are those kids brought to the hospital for minor dents and dings? Because Mommy and Daddy see an opportunity to turn a profit. It’s the same reason someone goes to the doctor for “whiplash” after a minor fender bender. They’re building their case for the impending lawsuit.

It’s hard for me to stomach some of the “let my child play dodge ball at recess!” hysteria, because we all know that half of the people screaming it wouldn’t hesitate to contact a lawyer should their pumpkin come off the dodge ball court with a broken nose. I’ve spoken to many daycare providers, and almost all of them have banned most forms of physical exertion among the children they supervise. Why? Are they conspiring to make our kids fat and slow? Or could it be that most of them also have horror stories about almost losing their home and business after some kid with litigious parents accidentally fell and bumped his head during Activity Time?

We can’t run around looking to sue everything that moves, and then become indignant when everyone around us starts to take a bit of a defensive posture. I just read another story recently about another school removing their swing sets. The parents and students rallied around the forsaken playground equipment and accused the school administrators of being Joyless Scrooges. Notice, they didn’t direct any of their ire at the people actually responsible for the travesty: the parents who sued them for having such a “dangerous” apparatus on their property. Are the schools supposed to risk bankruptcy for the sake of recess games and playground furnishings? I wouldn’t. I believe in standing on principle, but I’m not going to sacrifice my livelihood just to defend the honor of kickball. Sorry.

As with most cultural problems, we look for a simple way to explain why so many kids are mushy wimps by pointing at the easiest scapegoat. In this case, it’s the school system. But the school system has no vested interest in stopping your child from having fun. In fact, I’d wager that most teachers would prefer if these hyper sugar-fiends could work off some of that energy and come back to the classroom docile and rundown.

Their hands, however, are tied. If a kid gets hurt at school, somebody will file a lawsuit. That’s the way America works, and we all know it. How do you expect them to respond? There’s a sickness in our society, and it’s turned many of us into exploitative, whiny, manipulative opportunists. All of our institutions reflect that reality, and they all have to protect themselves from the hoards of lawyers and carpetbaggers who are just waiting for a lucrative accident to occur.

Besides, if you want your kid to run and leap and wrestle and play, he’s still got plenty of time for that. Take his computer and video game system away; send him outside to discover the wonders of the great outdoors. How many parents who complain about the lack of physical activity in school, then turn around and allow their kids to sit in the basement all weekend with their Xbox? If your kid is lazy and overweight, it’s not his teacher’s fault. It’s yours. Give Jimmy a carrot, shut off his smart phone, and make him go dig a ditch or move some rocks or rake some leaves.

They say you can’t have it both ways. Well, in our case, we’re looking to have it about 40 different ways at once. We want the children to play games at recess, but we don’t want them to get hurt (or we’ll sue), but we don’t want them to be fat, but we don’t want to take their video games and cell phones away, but we want them to get a lot of exercise, but we don’t want to enforce that rule at our own homes. We don’t know what we want, but DAMN THE SCHOOLS FOR NOT LISTENING TO OUR CONFLICTING DEMANDS!

Yes, the schools! Blame the schools! Blame somebody! Blame Big Foot! Blame… anyone! Anyone but us! That’s our mantra; second only to “Safety First.”

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