Balancing Safety and Risk-Taking in our Children
Are we protecting our children from too much? Today’s world is very different from the one that we grew up in or our parents and grandparents grew up in. Those families with children spread out over several years (10 or 15 years) can attest to the fact that the world their 15-year-old was born into was different than the world their 3-year-old was born into.
For the most part, today’s culture is focused on safety. We have bike helmets, elbow pads, knee pads, padded plastic or metal playground equipment instead of wood. How many of us adults can look back on how we grew up without bike helmets; we rode in the back of pick-up trucks; we built tree houses and club houses with our bare hands, grandpa’s old hammer and a tin of rusty nails—those were the days weren’t they?
We live in a world that strives to protect our children from pretty much anything and everything. No matter what they’re doing, we don’t want them to be hurt physically or emotionally. This has been carried perhaps too far in some places where teachers aren’t allowed to give a student a zero even if that student failed to complete his/her work; coaches teaching young children how to play soccer are told to evenly distribute the goals scored in a game so that each child can have a goal. We have become a society that celebrates mediocrity and discourages children from being too good at anything just in case we hurt someone’s feelings.
Boundaries from Birth
Obviously, there are situations where we need to protect our children and teach them when it’s okay to take risks, and which risks are okay to take. Each child needs to be taught boundaries. Realistic and reasonable boundaries that help them know what’s safe and what isn’t—or, perhaps, what’s not safe at the moment. As our children develop life experience and skills, many of these initial boundaries need to flex and allow for the next life experience.
For example, in their effort to learn how to walk, our children engage in a progression of experimenting, mastering and trying something new. Their first effort is to roll over, then to push up on their hands when they’re on their tummies, then onto their knees. Once they’re on their knees, we start putting up baby gates and things to protect them from going up and down the stairs until they’ve actually really learned to control these new abilities. Eventually, though, they need to learn how to navigate the stairs and this usually happens (should happen developmentally) before they start walking. From the very beginning our babies are pushing the boundaries of safety that we have set in place. These boundaries are good for a time and are contingent on our babies learning the right skills to reach the next level of their abilities. And with each child, the time at which they push against that boundary is different.
When trying to set those boundaries, explain to your child (in terms they understand) why you are setting that boundary. For example, teaching them to carry scissors closed, or not to push—because people can get hurt. “Explaining boundaries, rules and limits to children help them to understand why rules exist. When children are clear about the limits on what they may and may not do, they learn to distinguish right from wrong. Having consistent boundaries for behaviour at home and in the setting helps children feel confident because they know what is and is not acceptable in either place.” (Child-Development-Guide.com).
Children need to be in situations in which a decision is necessary. Like the rest of us, children naturally like being in control of things. When we allow them to have a part in the decision making process over what they wear or what they want for breakfast or what to play with, or even if they want to play with this toy or not, or play with that person or not, our children feel like they have some control.
Effective risk-taking and boundary-setting involves (adapted from www.child-development-guide.com):
- Allowing babies and children to do the things they’re able to do, helping them accomplish the things they’re just learning to master, and do for them those things that are completely beyond their abilities.
- Demonstrating clear and consistent boundaries and keeping reasonable expectations.
- Listening to what your children are telling you both verbally and non-verbally. This will help you address any fears—real or imagined.
- Providing enough opportunities for babies and toddlers to teach them what they need to learn without danger (risk and danger aren’t necessarily the same thing).
- Allowing your child the opportunity to be involved in the decision making instead of making decisions for them.
- Balancing flexibility and consistency of rules.
Through boundary-setting, our children should feel good about themselves, learn how to keep themselves safe, and how to recognize and avoid danger.
The Tricky Balancing Act
Of course, this has to all be balanced with the value of making mistakes and learning from them. Some rules should never be compromised on. With over 100,000 attempted abductions by non-family members in the U.S. each year according to the American Prosecutor’s Institute, for example, we cannot compromise on the rule “never get into a stranger’s vehicle”. Bike helmets are another obvious safety rule that should not be ignored because of the risk of head injury.
There is no set rule or set of guidelines for which rules you should set for your child and which risks are okay for them to take. Each family will have their own rules and boundaries, and these have to be balanced once again against a child’s own personality and temperament. But going too far and not allowing kids to take risks at all means they miss out on life experience that could help them with a similar situation later on. So long as there is no mortal danger, it’s worth it sometimes to just let them make a mistake and learn from it. You probably don’t remember, but I bet you learned not to touch a hot object because you touched it and learned what being burned felt like. When you were learning to walk, you learned to walk around the coffee table in the living room because you’d bumped into a corner once and it hurt.
There is a role for risk and a role for safety for our children as they develop and grow. The trick will always be to find the balance between them.
Darlene Oakley is a freelance writer for EmpowHER.com.
Risks, dangers and hazards. TeachingExpertise.com. Web. July 9, 2012.
Helping Children Take Good Risks. Eppler-Wolff, Nancy and Davis, Susan. Web. July 9, 2012.
A Unique Child: Early Years Foundation Stage: Keeping Safe. Child-Development-Guide.com. Web. July 9, 2012.
Balancing Independence with Safety: Kidpower Response to Free Range Kids. Van der Zande, Irene. KidPower.org. Web. July 9, 2012.
Childhood Development: How Can Parents Encourage This? Dr. Scott Shannon.
Crossing streets, kids with ADHD may misjudge risk.