When I first became a mum, I felt this overwhelming instinct to protect my baby from danger and all forms of pain. I suspect this concept is familiar to many new parents. It’s totally normal, right? Totally normal! What I didn’t realize at the time, is that as those instincts would spiral out of control, as anxiety crept in! Looking back it seems so obvious, but back then, I just couldn’t understand why everything felt so scary and intense when I thought about bad things happening to Arthurbear. Certainly, it was my one and only job to do everything in my power to protect him from all perceived danger possible! We all know it’s such a scary world out there after all.
When Arthurbear was just over a year old, I attended a presentation in Winnipeg by Lenore Sknazy! If you don’t recognize her name, you may have heard her story before. She shot to fame as “America’s Worst Mom” after she wrote about letting her then 9-year-old son ride the NYC subway home alone. She shared about her experience, her thought process and about how we’ve changed as a society! And get this! While society’s perception has changed, crime rates have actually DROPPED since I was a kid! Go figure! Could have fooled me! Thanks to the 24 hour news at our fingertips, it really appears to be so much worse, doesn’t it!?!
I left the talk with a copy of her book “Free Range Kids, How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry)” and dove deep into this book and her blog! The more information I consumed, the calmer and less anxious I felt! It made me feel much more confident knowing that statistically, the risks of things like stranger abduction are so small, they’re virtually impossible to guard against! It really changed my thinking, that while there are things I can do to keep Arthur safe, like using car seats or bike helmets, making myself crazy over the stuff that is likely to NEVER happen, wasn’t a good use of my time or energy! Should the unthinkable occur, I am sure I will carry as much guilt and self-blame as the next guy, but we simply can’t live our lives well, in fear! According to British author Warwick Cairns, if you actually wanted a stranger to abduct your child and keep them overnight, statistically you would have to leave them unattended, outside for roughly, 750,000 years! That statement flipped my notion of the world we live in on its head! You mean there aren’t “bad guys” hiding around every corner and in each alleyway? This statistic on its own relieved a lot of the anxiety I’d been carrying!
When Arthur was 3, I began my job at the Nursery School. I had heard of risky play through my college years and in passing since, but it had slipped my mind in those early parenting days. I was fortunate enough to attend several workshops on the subject of Play, and they all inevitably raved about the benefits of risky play! Risky play is categorized as these types of play: Play at fast speeds, play at great heights, play with dangerous tools or elements, play where a child can “get lost” and rough and tumble play.
It always made me think a lot about my own childhood. I loved to ride my bike the 3+km into town unsupervised with my brother and cousin, climb trees, building sketchy “tree forts” out of scrap materials found in the yard and my personal favourite “sibling invented” rough and tumble game “Get Off the Bed” and as we got a little older, rolling down the steep side of the overpass… sometimes in an old rain barrel (sorry mum, if you’re just learning about this now!) At the end of the day, we may have been battered and bruised, but we felt on top of the world, empowered and I learned so much from those experiences! How would my son look back on his childhood if I was always there to protect him from those perceived dangers? Could the benefits really outweigh the risks? Did I want his first independent experience lighting a fire or using an axe to be at a bush party when he is 16? And did I trust myself, as this boy’s ever-loving mother, to make accurate risk assessments in individual situations?
As I answered these questions, I could feel the fear start to drift away. I want him to grow and discover his capabilities and his limits while respecting tools and danger on his own, so that when he is in situations without my guidance he can make smart, informed decisions. All. By. Himself! I can say, without doubt, this thinking has made me a better mum, and a better teacher.
The beauty of “risky” play is that it is really a broad term that can describe so many types of activities for children of all different ages! And sometimes, it is a little bit controversial! For example, allowing a child to climb up the slide can be a surprisingly divisive topic. It challenges both our notions of social appropriateness and safety regulations! We’ve all been told “slides are for going down”, and most of us have probably said it ourselves! Here’s the thing… Sliding down is simply the easy way of using one piece of playground equipment. I’d now argue that my child and my students gain more skills from the challenge of climbing up the inclined, sometimes slippery surface than they do sliding down feet first in a seated position. It’s great for their motor development, creative thinking, and problem-solving skills! As for the social aspect, I really have learned to enjoy stepping back and observing children work out these issues on their own! What a fantastic, and overall low-risk, opportunity for children to work through conflict amongst themselves. Times where an agreement can’t be reached, I may step in and encourage turn taking, and listening to each other. But when possible, I respect each child’s desired use of the equipment, over giving priority to children using it one way over another.
One of the most amazing things about risky play, for me, is that I truly believe it makes play safer! I have a very strict “No Helping” rule! I believe it is dangerous to lift a kiddo up into a tree or hold their legs as they swing across the monkey bars! It is, unfortunately, a common thing to witness at most parks, but I think it does a disservice to little ones by putting them in a position they aren’t yet ready to handle. To calm my anxious mind, I need to know that Bear is building on his skills and learning his own limits! That might even mean falling and earning his own bumps and bruises. When climbing a tree, at 3 years old, he could only barely reach the bottom branch. As he got older, taller and stronger, he managed to get a little higher! Now, at 6 years old, he scales to the top of that tree, knowing what to look for, testing out thin branches before putting his weight on them. Each time he attempted to climb that tree, he was building on the skills and knowledge he already had. He has gained confidence and feels accomplished because he did it all on his own!
I will admit, there are times that allowing Arthur to
take risks gain valuable life experience, on his own, means I have to turn my back and choose not to watch. When he is up high in a tree, or jumping off a tall woodpile, I immediately ask “Do you feel confident that you are making a good decision?”, then turn around and close my eyes! While he feels in control and I’m learning to trust him, my anxiety can sometimes kick in and disrupt the learning opportunity. I can take comfort knowing that he will be safer 1. Doing it on his own, and 2. Without his mama gasping, yelling in fear, or repeating a shrill “be careful” every 5 seconds.
Now I’m certainly not suggesting we all let our children play in traffic, sling loaded guns, or jump from their third story window in the name of gaining life experience. Clearly, as parents, it IS our job to set limits and protect our children from real dangers and harm. All I am suggesting is that, like me, many parents are living in fear and it can be more damaging to our children than a skinned knee or bump to the head. If your kid is anything like mine, no amount of bubble wrap can prevent them from getting hurt in the most random ways (you should have SEEN the bruise he got tripping over thin air!), so why are we too nervous to allow them the benefits of really pushing their limits?! You may be surprised to find that the pressure you feel to protect your child from every potential injury is lessened when you start to let go, just a little at a time! I know it has for me!
Can you think of something risky your child is ready to do on their own but hasn’t been given the chance yet? Share in the comments if this post made you think of ways you can step back and let your child experience a little more risk!