How to let our children experience risk without being negligent

By Rachel Norman, A Mother Far From Home

Let’s face it. With young children, everything is risky. The bed, a place of supposed repose, becomes an apparatus from which your 1-year-old will launch herself and break an arm. While your mother watches helplessly on Skype. Even though you were right there as it happened and yet powerless to stop it.

Children can climb into a chair hundreds of times and then one afternoon fall off and chip a tooth. How do we balance letting life happen naturally with protecting our children from risk and harm?

It isn’t like mothers think we should put our children in a padded room never to experience any damage. Most parents don’t say, “I’ll never let my child climb a tree.” When thinking rationally, most parents would even say that letting children discover their own boundaries and abilities is a good thing.

And yet, we are the age of helicopter parents. Always hovering waiting to intervene at a second’s notice to prevent any ill from befalling our children. As we do this we feel proud that we are protecting our children from harm. In fact, hovering can almost been seen as a virtue in the face of parents who let their children climb to high heights or explore woods unsupervised. And yet, I believe, too much is too much.

The Forbes article states, “If parents remove risk from children’s lives, we will likely experience high arrogance and low self-esteem in our growing leaders.”

Research and common sense both show that we need to let our children learn some life lessons through first-hand experience. This does not mean, however, that we just throw them into the deep end to sink or swim. No, we teach them to swim first.

1.  Train first.

Sometimes we simply can’t watch our children go off and do something that could get them seriously injured. If your children like heights or climbing adventures, then why not spend some time helping your children learn to go up and down safely. Getting up is the easy part, but getting down is where tumbles often occur. If you’ve helped your children with these skills then you’ll feel more confident in letting them have fun without climbing the tree right beside them.

What about relationships and friendships at school or day care? If you are afraid they will be ostracized and are tempted to intervene, why not use it as an opportunity to help them help themselves. Why not teach your children inter-personal skills? There’s no time like the present to teach conflict resolution skills, how to confront another in love, and forgiveness. After all that we simply must let them solve some of their own problems. It doesn’t mean we leave them floundering, just that we don’t intervene at the slightest sign of discomfort.

People must feel discomfort to grow. 

2. Encourage independent thinking and problem solving skills.

One reason Babywise considers independent play time foundational is that it gives children opportunity to think for themselves. If they throw a toy out of the playpen they quickly learn the consequence: no more toy. If they are stacking or building they’ll learn how to balance to reach the highest height. When my kids ask for help I always respond, but I don’t always do what they ask. Sometimes I’ll stand by my daughter and explain to her how to finish what she’s started.

Other times, instead of just doing it for them I’ll ask a few questions to get them thinking. Encouraging children to think on their own will help them become resilient, adaptable and confident. There is great confidence to be found in problem-solving, don’t rob your children of this by attempting to make them momentarily comfortable.

As your children become more confident and proficient in problem-solving and decision-making you may just find you aren’t so scared to let them have more freedom of choice.

3.  Land the helicopter!

Now, there’s a difference in a parent who properly supervises their child and one who is a helicopter parent. Let’s differentiate between the two. A helicopter parent is defined as one who takes an overprotective or excessive interest in the life of their child or children. For smaller children I’d say it is a mother who is hyper-vigilant to the point of not letting their children do anything that could result in injury.

The trouble with this is that everything can result in injury with small children. Just yesterday my daughter fell and bruised her cheekbone on the laundry basket. Shall we then banish laundry baskets? Actually… I think that’s a fine idea.

When I get the urge to intervene with my children – and the urge comes often – I often stop myself and wait. Still nearby, but I purposefully hold back. I will let the kid try to get down from the high surface or finish what they’ve attempted to start. At least half the time they solve problems for themselves. Far far more often than I expect, they resolve situations to their liking without my help.

4.  Turn tumbles into truths. 

One way to help train your children in many areas of life is to turn tumbles, accidents and heartaches into opportunities to teach. Many times we tell our children something, they don’t listen, and they wish they did. The book How to be the Parent You Always Wanted to Be offers a better solution than “I told you so.” Letting children keep their dignity while acknowledging the truth (that you were right) can be as easy as “Oh, you found out.” Found out what? Found out that falling off the table hurts. Found out that being mean to people loses friends. Found out that talking during class gets you in trouble.

5. Ask yourself “what is the worst that could happen?” and “what is likely to happen?”

This is something the anxiety counsellor suggested when I was struggling with anxiety in my last pregnancy. It goes without saying you wouldn’t let a toddler cross a major intersection alone or walk down the street to grandma’s without supervision. However, there are many other ways in which we hover that aren’t so necessary.

What is the worst that could happen if your toddler is standing next to the kitchen counter while you cook? They touch the oven and get a blister? If you’ve told them before not to touch and they do, well, then they’ve found out why the oven isn’t to be touched. What is likely to happen if they fall off the merry-go-round? They hit the padded ground below? I don’t know how many times I’ve stopped myself and waited for “worst case scenario.” Most times it doesn’t happen. When it does it is often far less distressing as I thought. I am frequently happy with my conscious choice to stop hovering.

Of course we should keep our children safe! Of course we should train them what to do and what not to do! Our goal should be teaching them to make safety decisions on their own, appropriate to their developmental age. However, there will come a day when we simply must let our children make their own decisions. You wouldn’t let a 4-year-old decide which school they will attend, but you will let them make other day-to-day and moment-to-moment decisions. Decisions that will bring them into situations that could end in tears.

6. Childproof and back off. 

Make sure your backyard is free of pythons and pitchforks, then let them play. If you aren’t there watching their every move you won’t feel the need to intervene. Let them stay with family or friends whose parents you trust, and take a break. Ultimately, we cannot protect our children from everything even though we try hard. At some point we must simply do our due diligence and trust God’s will be done.

I trust myself. Why? Because in my 32 years I’ve been put in many, many situations of varying degrees of risk and I’ve come out alive. I’ve made great decisions, poor decisions and I’ve acquired much wisdom by getting myself out of many situations. I am not afraid to take risks. Why? Because I trust that I can make the best of whatever happens. That is what I want to give my children.