Can our kids be too safe?

by Kristin on July 22, 2011

in Love, family & community

Photo by Adam Kahtava

I’m beginning to accept that the theme of parenting ‘tweens and teens is “letting go.” (Those of you who have been there are probably chuckling to yourselves, and maybe wishing you could give me an encouraging hug.)

Not long ago I wrote a post about dropping my youngest off for her first “sleep-away camp” experience.  In that reflection I referenced an article from The Atlantic that suggests how important it is to let our kids experience discomfort and frustration from time to time. Earlier in the summer I wrote of my concerns about sending my older daughter off to the Bible Belt with her youth group—who knew what kinds of theology she would be exposed to?!?—but decided that the value of being exposed to differences is greater than the dangers.

This past week, in the midst of a heat wave that has so far included six straight days of excessive heat warnings, my oldest daughter was at a completely un-airconditioned 4-H camp, and my youngest was was huffing it at a running camp in town. Yes, I worried about them more than a few times (and my ex-husband worried even more, which didn’t help my attempts to talk myself out of worrying).

Anxieties and fears are worse than broken bones

But once again, a fear-calming article has arrived just in the nick of time. This one, from The New York Times, is entitled Can a Playground Be Too Safe? Essentially, researchers are questioning the value of safety-first playgrounds, pointing out that children need opportunities to “encounter risks and overcome fears.”

Even if children do suffer fewer physical injuries — and the evidence for that is debatable — the critics say that these [safety-first] playgrounds may stunt emotional development, leaving children with anxieties and fears that are ultimately worse than a broken bone.

What’s interesting to me, if I can step back far enough from Mama-Bear mode to do some honest self analyzing, is that it’s not usually the immediate, first layer concern that worries me, but the fear of a deeper, longer-lasting one. In other words, to use playgrounds as an example, I’m not worried about my daughters breaking a bone (been there) or needing a few stitches as much as I’m worried about them becoming timid and developing deep-seeded fears that will follow them through life. But according to the NYT article, “A child who’s hurt in a fall before the age of 9 is less likely as a teenager to have a fear of heights.”

Living through pain teaches us that we can

When I really think about it, that makes perfect sense. We have to experience some of life’s dangers and injuries in order to experience survival. And the idea of survival is hard to grasp just by reading or hearing about it. You have to experience it. Once we have lived through something difficult or painful, we know we can survive. We know there is life after that difficult experience. Extreme cases aside, it makes us stronger, not more fearful. (And let me add that it makes us not just stronger and more brave, but smarter, too, because we’re learning skills from the experience that can be applied down the road.)

So back to allowing our kids to “encounter risks and overcome fears”—the wonderful irony is that as we provide opportunities for our children to do just that, we’re doing and learning the very same skills, from the parental perspective. If I was the kind of person who used phrases like “it’s a win-win,” this would be the perfect place to do so. :)

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  • Roxanne

    An interesting post. Yes, letting go can be tough … but it’s so necessary, in fact love demands it.

  • Dan J

    I immediately thought about this article from 2008: More From America’s Worst Mom: 9-Year-Old On The Subway, Continued.

    Letting go even at the playground is tough to do. I blame some of it on the “climate of fear” that we’ve all come to experience in the past few decades. I had a very unfettered childhood, but managed to get through it without any broken bones. ThHere were only a few instances when I required stitches.

  • The Modern Gal

    I guess we read the same article! This is what happens when I’m three weeks late in my comments :)

  • Joi

    I’m trying to remember my mom ever saying the words, “Be careful!” My brother, sister and I really did crazy, potentially very dangerous things, when I look back on it. Strangely, though, that did not translate to me as I raised my kids. Nor did it make me more risk-taking as an adult — hardly! But it did allow me to enjoy the freedom of many childhood experiences without being overly concerned about my safety. Personally, I am totally bored and disappointed with the newest playground equipment on our school playgrounds because there is no thrill or real challenge in much of it for the children, due to worry over lawsuits if even one child would have a serious injury.

    I do think we all look at danger from completely different perspectives, depending on our personalities and our imaginations. Worrying about things like heat stroke or other life-threatening possibilities for our kids is very sensible, I think, as long as we speak these concerns to kids (and their caregivers) as teaching moments rather than creating fears. Children most often do not recognize the potential threat in some situations. There’s a reasonable balance between making kids boldly confident in themselves and encouraging risky behavior to toughen them. “Tough” kids sometimes make choices as if they are invincible. That’s not healthy.

  • Dave

    Letting go is a process that begins by being with them as they learn how to be independent. I distinctly remember a birthday party, about 15 -20 years ago now) where I became the defacto jungle gym spotter. My daughter was doing fine but there was this one girl very unsure of herself. Despite my encouragement she kept appealing to her mom up on the porch. I kept thinking to myself here is a case where this girl has been overprotected and then suddenly mom decided it was time to let her go; no training, no transition. It’s all about teaching, spotting, celebrating, consoling, reassuring.

    My daughter is now headed off to Africa with the Peace Corps in a month. This is going to be an important month to spend with her doing all those things! I’m pretty sure she’ll do those things for me too!

  • Dave

    How could I leave off “encouraging” ?! >> It’s all about teaching, encouraging, spotting, celebrating, consoling, reassuring.

  • Kristin T.

    Roxanne, yes, that whole “If you love something, set it free” thing… :)

    Dan J, the thing that I find interesting about this somewhat recent “climate of fear” is that it is justified in certain respects–life in our town, for instance, is generally less safe for kids than it was 50 years ago–yet it seems like that fear has spread into other areas/activities that are no more dangerous now than they ever were (like riding bikes, or playing at playgrounds). I guess that goes to show that fear often isn’t logical.

    The Modern Gal, you can be as “late” in your comment as you want! I always enjoy them.

    Joi, your personal experiences make me wonder if a person’s tendency to “worry” is linked more to nature than nurture…or maybe it skips a generation! :) This is important to remember–I’m glad you pointed it out: “…we all look at danger from completely different perspectives, depending on our personalities and our imaginations.”

    Dave, I love thinking about this move toward independence as a process. As parents, it’s not that we have a role and then we don’t, it’s that the role changes. “It’s all about teaching, encouraging, spotting, celebrating, consoling, reassuring.” Yes! It sounds like you’re giving your daughter just what she needs for her next adventure. It’s a bit scary, yes, but so very exciting.