We dread them, we hate them, we get thrown off our game when they happen.…
“Be back in time for dinner!”
That was me as a kid as I ran out the door to go play with my friends.
I lived in a four room apartment on the 8th floor of a New York City apartment building and I’m sure my mother was as happy to have some time for herself as I was happy to go outside.
Sometimes I called my friends in advance and made plans to meet downstairs or maybe at the park.
Sometimes I took my roller skates, sometimes I took my bike, sometimes I took a ball. Sometimes I just took myself.
Sometimes I just walked to the park to see who I’d meet there.
I was probably what today would be called a free range kid.
Interestingly, my parents were among the most nervous, worrying people I knew. But somehow they had enough faith in me to allow me to go outside and do things that were “potentially dangerous”, but ultimately good for me.
And what kinds of things does an 8-year-old big city kid do?
I LOVED going roller skating with my friends. We went careening down hills, whipping around corners, skating full speed, and yes, crossing streets on our skates.
I went to the playground, my favourite place, and with my friends, climbed to the top and hung upside down on the steel monkey bars over a concrete slab.
I also swung my heart out, sitting or standing, on heavy steel swings over more concrete.
I rode my bike for what seemed like miles, went sledding in the nearby golf course in the winter, skating on a lake about 2kms away in the winter, etc etc.
I had a blast!
I always had a watch, and I (almost) always came home on time for dinner.
Did anything ever happen to me?
Yes. I had a broken arm. I had endless scraped knees. I cut my head once and needed stitches and probably a few more things I don’t remember.
I do remember one particular incident on a bike ride with my friend Nancy though and it was an important one for me (and you… so keep reading!)
We were speeding down a hill that wound around the public golf course. We were both around 11. Suddenly Nancy fell off her bike. She was lying on the ground crying and crying. I stopped my bike and went back to where she was laying. We all fell off our bikes from time to time, but I knew this fall was different. Nancy was in agony.
I had a moment of panic. There we were… just the two of us with no one around and she was really hurt. She couldn’t even stand up. It was up to me to get her some help. It was a long way back to our apartment building and I didn’t want to leave her by herself for very long. But I had to get help. My little 11-year-old brain was scrambling about what I could possibly do.
We were on the perimeter of the golf course and I figured if I walked around the outside fence I’d eventually see a grownup who could help.
So that’s what I did. And that’s what happened.
Three men were playing and I called out to them saying my friend was hurt. They instantly stopped their game and made their way out of the golf course to come help.
I don’t remember everything that happened after that, but we got my friend Nancy to her parents and then to the hospital. She had broken her collarbone.
I remember how happy I was that she would be all right. But what I really remember was how good I felt about myself and my ability to handle an emergency situation. I felt super grown up and capable and that I could handle anything.
So why am I telling you all this and what do my childhood antics have to do with you as a parent of young kids?
I’m telling you because it’s important to allow children to take some risks and discover their own capacity.
Now, I am a strong believer in safety.
I believe in car seats, helmets, ski leashes, life jackets, sunscreen, locked medicine cabinets, never ever ever leaving a baby or toddler alone in the bathtub, teaching kids what to do in a fire… more.
I’m glad playgrounds are safer than they used to be. I passionately wish all the government approved toxins were removed from our food.
But… over the last decade I have seen parents become so frightened and worried about their children’s safety that it is debilitating both to the parents and the children.
We have become such a fear and litigation based society that we are denying children the opportunities to discover their strengths and abilities and have those wonderful childhood adventures that expand their horizons.
It’s almost as though we have become afraid of life.
Numerous cities have banned tobogganing in their parks because its “dangerous”.
Communities have cut down trees because tree climbing is “dangerous”.
Some schools have even banned balls because they are “dangerous”.
Children are taught never to talk to strangers because they might be “dangerous”.
So, as a parent, how do you find a balance between risk and safety for your kids?
Here’s some basic parenting advice that might help.
- Love your children. Do everything you can to develop a close loving connection and attachment. Although it may seem like a contradiction, children who are securely attached develop more self-discipline, self-reliance, self-confidence and healthy independence.
- Spend time with your children. Include them in your day to day activities so they learn basic life skills from cleaning, cooking, shopping, what to do when you are hurt, how to evaluate situations for risk versus safety.
- Give your children opportunities to try things. Give them support and help, but let them do it! Allow them to make mistakes and teach them that that is how we learn things.
- Don’t panic and get all upset every time your child falls or gets hurt. It really is a healthy learning part of childhood.
- Give your children the opportunity to interact with adults so they know how to ask for help if they need it. Teach them who to ask for help. I always told my children to ask a parent with children with them for help.
- Trust your instincts about what your child is capable of. All children are different and develop at different rates. Don’t use arbitrary criteria such as age. Some children are inherently cautious and need encouragement. Some are inherently fearless and need to learn how to be more careful.
- Watch yourself for your reactions to children trying new things. If you are inherently fearful, try to let go of some of your fear so you don’t impose it on your children. If you are inherently a risk taker really pay attention to your children’s developmental readiness and temperament.
- There is a big difference between being careful and being fearful!
The “risk taking” lessons I learned as a “free-range kid” are still teaching me things even today.
Last week I went on a five-day hiking trip and parts of the hike absolutely terrified me.
The guide on my hike checked in with me regularly. He held my poles for me when I felt I needed to use my two hands to walk across a field of boulders on a steep cliff. He stood below me when I felt too scared to walk along a narrow ridge. He checked in with me if I wanted to keep going on a particularly challenging climb.
There was only one time I said I didn’t feel I could do something and he honoured that.
The whole time I was on the hike, I realized that this is what it’s like for kids when they try new things. They may be scared but they find their courage when they are acknowledged for their skill level, supported over the terrifying spots, and respected when they really know their limits.
We want our kids to build their self-confidence, their skills and to embrace and enjoy life. Isn’t that why we have them?
Just imagine how great you both will feel when they can say “I did it!”
PS: I have to say I was really proud of myself for completing my hiking trip. I pushed past my comfort zone, got to see some of the most magnificent mountain terrain and came back determined to work on building my core strength and balance so I can go back next year. I absolutely loved it!