Q: I'm concerned about being too protective. I hover around my child at the playground and constantly tell him to be careful when playing at home or outside. How do I encourage safe play without controlling him 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.