Q: I'm concerned about being too protective. I hover around my kid at the playground and constantly tell him to be careful when playing at home or outside. How do I encourage safe play without controlling my kid or imparting my own fears on him?
A: This is an important question, and the fact that you want to stretch the limits of your bravery says a lot about your parenting.
In 2008, Lenore Skenazy allowed her 9-year-old son to take public transportation alone in New York City from Bloomingdale’s back to their home. She had prepared him well with maps and directions and made sure he had the maturity to handle himself if he got lost. She wrote about his successful trip home, and before she knew it, she was at the center of a massive controversy. Many parents were outraged and accused her of neglect.
But other members of the public supported her, calling her critics helicopter parents and blaming them for making our kids weak. Skenazy wrote a book, “Free-Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts With Worry),” and started a movement, challenging every parent to not succumb to fear, to trust our society and to give children the freedom they need to grow up, unencumbered by our constant demands and commands.
We still struggle with how much freedom to give our children. What is hindering us? Neuroscientists and social scientists are only beginning to understand how the 24/7 news cycle does odd things to our parenting brains. And there’s also the stress that carrying computers in our pockets all day brings to us in small and big ways.
But the good news is that parents are starting to see what all this hovering is doing to our young children. We see the anxiety and neediness we create when we follow our children around. Parents are watching their children turn to screens and gaming as their primary forms of entertainment, which makes them restless and bored. Droves of parents report to me that their kids are unable to play alone or cannot make sense of the natural world. Being outside scares some children! They cannot create toys out of found objects, and it takes them a long time to find the imaginations that used to be readily available to them.
Here’s the deal: Play cannot be totally safe if it is true play. Some element of danger or challenge, either physical or mental, is needed for children to feel that they are truly playing. Why is this? True play pushes children to their growing edge. There is a natural consequence when 4-year-olds climb too high at a playground and must jump off. Think of all the systems at work. The brain is panicking a bit but judging distance. The kids’ balance and muscles are being challenged, and so is their judgment. In the midst of all this, they are finding courage. Their eyes may dart around, looking for you, but if they can’t see you, they will find a way to get down. Their play turned into a true challenge, and this challenge has made them grow and brought about resilience and fun. It is fun to be scared and make it through to safety. The terror, the fear, the triumph: This is childhood.
We don’t want our children to get hurt, but playing (and living) comes with bumps and bruises, physically and emotionally. The elbow gets scraped, the ankle gets turned, the distance was too high, and the fear became too much. And there is value in all of that.
Resilience in children grows when they make it through a tough spot while playing, but resilience also grows when they need help. It is okay for a child to be challenged and need parental assistance. That’s how they feel true boundaries. If parents are always creating false boundaries, the child doesn’t learn or feel what is real or what is truly needed. This false sense of safety is more dangerous than most of the dangers you think await your child, because the mistakes that children make when they’re older have greater ramifications.
Can you let it go too far? Can you provide your child with too much free play? Yes, of course. The freedoms you allow are based on the developmental maturity of your child, not necessarily on age. There are children who need a bit more guidance and supervision (because of sensory issues, for instance), but that doesn’t mean that you can’t help them discover their own growing edge. For instance, parents of children who don’t feel pain in a typical way and are prone to serious injuries may need to make sure they are jumping from safe distances. But that doesn’t mean these parents can’t find other ways for their children to feel free. It just requires some imagination to help them play without truly risking their lives.
Because you sound like a caring parent, I doubt you would disagree with anything I have written, so please take a look at why you are so scared to leave your child alone to play. Are these normal worries, or do you have anxieties that need more support? Did you experience loss or trauma in the past? Is your childhood affecting your parenthood? Dig deeper, because if you are doing this parenting gig well, your son is only going to move toward more independence. The entire point of parenthood is to support these young humans growing to their fullest potential, and that requires them to separate from us, both physically and emotionally. Hovering is not love; it is insecurity dressed up as caring.
Look at this from all angles. Challenge your fears. Accept that every time you unnecessarily hover over your child, the messages you send are “I don’t trust you” and “Don’t trust yourself.” If that sounds dramatic, well, every neurosis starts somewhere, right?
You have the power to make another choice, so be brave and be more like a drone than a helicopter: nearby, but at a greater distance. Communicate confidence, and comfort the child when the play goes south. If you think this advice will change much as he gets older, think again. Children of all ages need the freedom to make mistakes.
Send questions about parenting to firstname.lastname@example.org.