A Space Safe for Learning

Excerpted from “I Wanted a Cactus – My Reluctant Journey of Paternity”

By Dave Norman

Among the highlights, parenthood is also an endless stream of dealing with things I’d rather not deal with, or even think about. Disengagement, though, does no favors.

Today compelled me to wonder: what speech is free in a first grade classroom, and what isn’t? And of any speech that is banned…why? There had better be a good reason.

This isn’t something I would worry about unbidden, but I received an email from my son’s teacher explaining their recent class meeting about what kinds of stories are alright to tell in writing class, what kinds of things are alright to talk about with peers, and what sorts of things aren’t.

She explained the qualification for banned speech as any speech that makes another child uncomfortable. Full stop.

Provided examples included ghost stories and talk of haunted things, stories in which someone is run over by a car or falls from a great height, and stories involving potions that can injure a character—common tropes in cartoons, books, and other media. Apparently these things are now off limits.

I asked my son about the class meeting, and he explained that a few other children—it’s always other children when it’s him and his friends—found that they could harass another child with “scary” stories and gross-out humor.

I was appalled, and set him straight about bullying other children. Language isn’t guilty here—not the scary ghost stories or the potty language. My son is guilty here, and the offense is using words to torment someone else for his amusement. Children do that unfortunately, and unfortunately, every time my child is involved as either victim or perpetrator, I have to reinforce basic lessons in common decency.

But what stuck in my craw was the email home, and its celebration of the classroom as a “safe place” whose fortress walls are guarded in part with limitations on the topics and content of speech.

A prohibition on using language to injure, bully, or harass, I fully agree with—that’s already covered in anti-bullying rules. Community standards that embrace bonhomie, respect, and courtesy, I’m all for. And there are many ways of steering students away from asinine potty talk and precocious content without banning entire topics, themes, and plot devices.

I won’t quote the email out of context, or reproduce it since it was meant for a private audience, but it got me thinking about the widespread misinterpretation of the term “safe spaces,” and the strident defense of comfort over opportunity for growth.

Safe Spaces…in Elementary School?

The idea of a safe space is of a space that is safe *for* difficult conversations, for experimenting with difficult ideas and forms of expression, and safe for the delicate and necessarily uncomfortable process of personal growth.

The idea of a safe space as one that’s safe *from* discomfort is antithetical to the purpose of creating spaces that are conducive to intellectual and personal growth.

The idea that students as young as six are coached to only share “appropriate” stories at school is a frightening strike against freedom of speech as well as freedom of thought. Determining appropriate stories for appropriate settings and purposes, and determining how best to articulate those stories, cannot happen with neurotic self-censorship meant to abide a general concept of “not scaring someone.” Rather, it happens through experimentation: trial, error, correction, and discovery.

The best way to understand a rule—its limits, its purpose, and its ability to be enforced—is often by breaking it, and having an honest encounter with the consequences.

Similarly, the best way to understand the utility, liability, and mechanics, of language is to experiment with it.


To instill a value of avoiding topics outside an ill-defined range of things appropriate for school, is a vast disservice to intellectual and personal growth. Personal growth is messy, and involves a lot of failure and a fair amount of apologizing. It doesn’t need to involve meanness, but it absolutely requires experimentation and risk.

For the risk averse, this must be terrifying.

While there are limits of taste, and individual circumstances worth realigning a pupil with community standards, the business of learning is often one of discovering limits by exploring (and exceeding) them—a process hampered by neurotically attempting to constrain one’s expression to an image of what pleases an authority figure.

Crossing Lines

The email was quite cheerful and well-intended and also missed the point entirely—the problem is not what the children said, but rather the act of using words to bully and harass each other.

The classroom should be reasonably safe from people being casually mean to each other. It should not be safe from precocious plot devices and casual talk about whatever interests the pupils.

In a truly safe space, language, imagery, and ideas, aren’t the problem. Nor are they used to intimidate or frighten. I trust the kids, even first graders, can tell the difference between a scary story, and the scary use of words to bully them. It’s the use of language to abuse each other—not any certain ideas or words themselves—that we need to keep out of our safe spaces.