These days, parents seem to go out of their way to make sure their kids are taking the safe route, trying to protect them from hurt feelings, harm and even failure. Without even realizing it, we’re doing things for our children rather than teaching them. As a result, kids are becoming too cautious and anxious.
We need to stop coddling our children. While it might make us feel better as parents, it’s definitely not doing them any favours.
When it comes to kids, being overprotective can actually increase their anxiety, both for young children and college-aged youth, according to a recent report in Psychology Today. “Kids are very nervous today—they have a lot of anxiety,” says child development specialist Rebecca Weingarten. As an education consultant and specialist in New York City, she talks to a lot of kids, parents and educators about the importance of taking risks. It’s up to parents, she says, to take the lead.
“We need to promote constructive failure,” says Weingarten. “Kids can’t be afraid to face the normal repercussions associated with taking risks.” But how do we, as parents, find a balance between giving kids space and helping them? Is it even possible? My kids are now tweens, and the very notion of letting them go free range stresses me out because of all the “what-ifs.” Sure, I want to give them room to grow and develop, but I also want to keep them safe and help prevent them from making bad choices.
So let’s try to understand risk a little bit better, which isn’t the same for everyone. It can be very different based on background, neighbourhood and other factors. What is risky in Brooklyn, New York, on a Saturday night isn’t the same as what’s risky in rural Louisiana. “You have to find what works for you,” says Weingarten. “It won’t—and shouldn’t—look like everyone else’s.”
Knowing the difference between danger and risk Danger and risk are definitely different, says Alicia Berkelmans, who is raising three young girls on a micro-farm outside Cambridge, Ontario. “It’s up to parents to teach kids the difference between danger and risk,” she says. “Being dangerous is letting a child play with matches unattended. Embracing risk is showing them how to build a fire safely so they won’t get burned.”
You wouldn’t send a child who doesn’t know how to swim around water without going through the rules of water safety and supervising them. You also wouldn’t let young children around fires, wild animals or other unfamiliar outdoor elements before having a conversation with them about the risks, rules and things they should know.
Berkelmans says that she and her husband teach their girls how to climb trees and how to make sensible choices about which ones to climb and how high to go. But then it’s up to the girls to take the risk, and knowing that they might fail is just part of the equation.
To practise this yourself, Weingarten suggests finding a place where you and your kids feel comfortable taking a risk and letting them try an activity on their own. “This is a good way to see that it’s OK to make mistakes,” she says.
Do things with kids—but not for them A lot of times, we don’t even realize that we’re doing things for our kids. It starts at a young age, like holding their hands across a balance beam or trying to shield them from disappointment. “Let kids try things on their own and rebel a little,” says Weingarten. “This is how they learn about themselves.”
Sometimes we have to show kids what risk looks like. “Most of the traits we want for our kids—resilience, confidence, empathy, academic achievement—flourish when parents and children have time to be together and experience role modelling and positive support,” says Susan Sachs Lipman, author of Fed Up With Frenzy: Slow Parenting in a Fast-Moving World.
Kids naturally want to do what their parents are doing—and they should. However, it’s important to show kids and then let them do it on their own terms. When I took my kids hiking along the sand dunes of Lake Michigan a couple of summers ago, my daredevil son was quick to speed across fallen logs (“Time me, Mom!”) and barrel down the sandy hills. Meanwhile, my slightly cautious but still adventurous daughter would booty-crawl across the logs and go a little slower down the hills so she wouldn’t lose her balance. I wanted to caution my son and encourage my daughter, but I had to remind myself that both options were fine. They didn’t need input from me in telling them how they should do it.
Getting back to the simplicity of free play According to research by Kenneth Ginsburg, a paediatrician in Philadelphia, the benefits of free play can lead to learning opportunities, negotiation skills, sharing and decision-making. Another study from the University of Lethbridge in Alberta shows that free play actually changes the way the neurons in the front of the brain connect in a positive way.
So we know free play is good, but how does this translate to daily activities?
“It means no adults, no restrictions and no added rules during playtime,” says Thomas Dittl, a kindergarten teacher and father of two in Wisconsin who is a big advocate of free play. “When you give kids room to explore and learn on their own, amazing things happen. I’ve seen this happen time and time again with my kindergarten students. They figure things out on their own. They learn how to share. They invent new ways of doing things. Even at a young age, it’s setting them up for future success.”
Not sure where to start? Weingarten recommends finding a parent group in your area or even online. “Sometimes it can feel like you’re operating in a vacuum,” she says. “Being able to air your issues and even work through them with other people can be helpful.”
She cautions parents from just adopting others’ methods because it’s still important to figure out what works for your situation. But it can be helpful as you’re exploring options and figuring out your approach.
I’m a member of an online Facebook group called Wildschooling. Now these parents tend to be a bit more adventurous when it comes to nature and the outdoors, but I recently asked them how they let their kids take risks.
Some of their best advice was to let kids mimic you. From using real tools at a young age to teaching kids the proper way to hold knives in the kitchen for chopping, it’s better to tackle these topics rather than ignore them.
If you’re not quite ready to give your two-year-old a hammer or teach your seven-year-old how to use a knife properly, then consider this advice from Weingarten. “Take tiny steps,” she says. “Then, at the end of the day, ask yourself what is rational and realistic. Be proud knowing that you’re doing what you can to raise strong and resilient children.”
As a mom with adventurous children, my best advice is to get out there and be risky with them—and remember with them, not for them. I’m not naturally drawn to outdoor activities like camping, swimming in cold waters and getting up close and personal with living creatures like bugs. But through my adventurous kids, I have made a lot of memories and have a much better understanding of these wise words from Mark Twain: “Twenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbour, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” Let’s all do more of that.
This story is a part of Let Them Play, a project examining kids and independence by Today's Parent and Maclean’s.