Monday, March 24, 2014

Overprotected Life

A friend of mine posted this article on FaceBook the other day.  It’s long, but so worth reading.  Among many great points, it further highlights what I know to be true: we modern parents shelter our modern children too much.


When I think back to my childhood, I remember playing in trees, falling out of trees, playing on rocks at the beach (we weren’t allowed to, but we did it anyway, and got in plenty of trouble), jumping over ditches filled with nasty water, and hacking our ways through local woods (which seemed much larger back then than they actually were).  I want my children to have these experiences, to feel unsupervised, even if I’m totally keeping an eye on them.

Children are born with the instinct to take risks in play, because historically, learning to negotiate risk has been crucial to survival; in another era, they would have had to learn to run from some danger, defend themselves from others, be independent. Even today, growing up is a process of managing fears and learning to arrive at sound decisions. By engaging in risky play, children are effectively subjecting themselves to a form of exposure therapy, in which they force themselves to do the thing they’re afraid of in order to overcome their fear. But if they never go through that process, the fear can turn into a phobia. Paradoxically, Sandseter writes, “our fear of children being harmed,” mostly in minor ways, “may result in more fearful children and increased levels of psychopathology.” She cites a study showing that children who injured themselves falling from heights when they were between 5 and 9 years old are less likely to be afraid of heights at age 18. “Risky play with great heights will provide a desensitizing or habituating experience,” she writes.


I recognize that allowing my kids to have some more independence and to do “dangerous” things is crucial to their development.  But the reality of letting them experience independence and danger is so much more difficult to enable.


In the past few days, I have scrutinized my parenting and tried to find ways to let go.  Until I read this article, I considered myself to be a fairly hands-off parent: I don’t help very much at the playground; I allow my children to be far away from me, even though I can still see them; and I let them fall and hurt themselves, repeatedly and often.  I’m usually the most hands-off parent at the playground.  But.  But.  It’s not nearly enough for Charles, who is five-and-a-half years old and obviously yearns to stretch his wings and jump out of that tree.


photo 2 (21) photo 1 (22)

The balloons are because it is his “party tree” 


I made a big step toward becoming less-protective this weekend: I stopped yelling at Charles about climbing into the high, small branches of our tree.  He’ll either fall or he won’t; at this point, he understands the risk.  And feeling like he’s taking a risk is, perhaps, exactly what he needs:


Children…have a sensory need to taste danger and excitement; this doesn’t mean that what they do has to actually be dangerous, only that they feel they are taking a great risk. That scares them, but then they overcome the fear. In the paper, Sandseter identifies six kinds of risky play: (1) Exploring heights, or getting the “bird’s perspective,” as she calls it—“high enough to evoke the sensation of fear.” (2) Handling dangerous tools—using sharp scissors or knives, or heavy hammers that at first seem unmanageable but that kids learn to master. (3) Being near dangerous elements—playing near vast bodies of water, or near a fire, so kids are aware that there is danger nearby. (4) Rough-and-tumble play—wrestling, play-fighting—so kids learn to negotiate aggression and cooperation. (5) Speed—cycling or skiing at a pace that feels too fast. (6) Exploring on one’s own.


I have long accepted that my children are going to get hurt no matter how I protect them.  Jamie fell in our driveway on Saturday and got the biggest fat lip I’d ever seen.  Charles gets scrapes and bumps playing in his room.  Injuries are inevitable.  Besides letting them experience risk, when injuries do occur, they teach about consequences, and I’d sure like the lesson of cause and effect to take root in my kids’ brains BEFORE they learn how to drive. 


But just so you see how far I have to go to curb my protective instincts, meet the orangest member of our family:


photo 3 (19)

Leland was once almost this orange due to over-consumption of carrot juice 


Our street is a loop off of an arterial, and it’s a busy road.  People drive too fast.  I worry about the kids getting hit by a car because, you see, I let them play in the front yard unsupervised.  I let Charles go down the street with the neighborhood kids where I can’t see him.  I’m keeping the orange sign because it helps me let go a little bit so Charles can venture farther afield.


I have stopped following Jamie around the park unless he asks me.  I am trying to come up with new places to take the boys to play, places where they can get dirty and build and destroy and interact with something other than standard, boring, homogenized playground equipment.  Charles is going to get a knife (for cutting sticks, probably – isn’t that what kids do with knives?) when he is six years old, and I recently told Tony that I think we need to get a fire pit this summer.  It’s a big step, because I’ve long been against fire pits due to their dangerous nature and my inability to watch the kids all the time (regardless of how much I love s’mores).


But you know what?  My kids aren’t stupid, and neither am I.  Charles is unlikely to fall into a fire pit and Jamie and the youngest child will be watched closely for a few more years while we teach them how to manage around fire safely.  The important part is that we will teach them how to be safe with fire, so that when they are away from us, they will already know.


Maybe my next step is to accept building a house on a piece of property that is near water.  Better to have the kids learn about water safety and respect water, even if it’s just a small pond, than to have them grow up afraid of the dangers water poses.


With so much information at our fingertips, it’s a constant struggle to know how to proceed.  We do the best we can.  Continuing to learn about what our kids need and deciding how to give it to them is essential to that, as is reevaluating our methods as we learn new information.


I do know this: protecting our children to such an extreme that they never get hurt doing something truly fun is tragic.

1 comment:

Margarita Primavera said...

Thank you for sharing and thank you for the article - good reminders that it's good to let go a little. I agree that it's those early learning experiences that teach kids to figure out limits, and risks, and consequences. They can't learn that when we're constantly supervising them.