Parents Please: Provide the Facts not the Horoscope

“Look out,” she screamed, “you’re going to fall and bang your head, and then it will crack open,and blood will go everywhere, and it’ll really hurt and I can’t cope when you’re hurt, and it’ll be a huge mess to clean up, and right now I have to get your brother to school, and the baby needs her nappy changing, and I haven’t done the dishes yet, and I’ve had a bad night’s sleep and I can’t cope with your father anymore!”

OK, so that’s an exaggeration (I hope), but how many people have you heard predict their children are going to hurt themselves, before it happens? Plenty, I’m sure.

Often it happens when a child climbs a tree, “Don’t go too high or you’ll fall!” 

Or, when they are walking over a slippery surface, “Careful or you’ll slip and bang your head.”

Or, when they’re first riding their bikes, “Watch that tree or you’ll crash into it and hurt yourself.”

Near misses are my personal favourite, “You nearly hit him with that stick, and you could have poked his eye out/stabbed him/stuck it through his cheek.”

It’s as if we don’t want our children to learn how to manage risk.

Plenty of children, even small children, climb trees – really high, and never fall. Plenty of children, even small children, can manage to wander over a slippery surface, and never fall. Plenty of children learn to ride their bikes and somehow always miss the tree or the lamp-post in front of them. Near misses are still a miss. And what if they don’t – what, seriously, is likely to happen? How many people do you know who had their eye poked out with a stick? I’ll bet you can count them on one hand. And how many people have you known this lifetime?

Children do have accidents. If you have a toddler, they have accidents constantly. Often, I look at the Butterfly and pray no-one asks too many questions about the grazes and the bump on the head and the slightly black eye. He’s learning to negotiate his world. He needs to find its edges. And, yes, often he hurts himself. But, at 17 months, he already doesn’t hurt himself as often as other children his age, and he is already physically more capable, (so were/are the others regardless of temperament)  and we’ve done nothing to accelerate his progress. All we’ve done, from the moment he began to roll, is provide the facts not the horoscope.

“The floor is slippery/hard/wet/rough.” 

“The steps go down.”  “The table is here.”

With older children we use things like:

“That branch is close to your foot.”  “The floor is wet.”  “The tree is on your left.” “Watch the car/washing line/piece of wood.”


When children aren’t used to managing risk on their own at their own pace, and you stop telling their horoscope – they do have a month or two of extra falls and scrapes. They do hurt themselves more than other children. Why?

When children (or adults for that matter) learn to do something particularly involving risk it takes immense concentration. Many different parts of the brain are involved, even the bits that process emotion. Each time the child tries to do something new, the brain tries to remember the correct sequence of events. Each time they make a mistake, it causes a little fright or pain, each time that happens the brain can correct and modify the process. It’s the little dose of discomfort which ‘teaches’ the brain. We’re built to get things wrong! Children who are permitted to take chances, at their own pace …and that’s important Dads, and Mums, who want to put their children up high on to bits of playground they can’t climb on to BY THEMSELVES… learn to sequence tasks in small chunks. Take using a knife, yes, please do: the hold, the pressure, the keeping other fingers out of the way, the knowing when to stop cutting, the different ways of using one for cutting different things – all involve getting the sequence right. Again, if there is an adult the children trust nearby to provide the facts, but not the horoscope, they will learn how to use a knife (or whatever) easily. Yes, they MIGHT cut themselves. Pain is OK, truly. It’s just pain. It rarely lasts a life-time. Use a Boring Cuddle and watch the pain melt away : Quick Way to Stop Children Fussing. Yes, there MIGHT be blood – have a cloth and some plasters handy, and if it’s bad – bundle everyone out the door, and take the injured one to Accident and Emergency.

And why do some parents find this so hard? Well the good news is, they experience empathy – for example, during a fall they literally feel their stomach/heart drop when the child’s does. Not everyone has this experience. On the other hand many people who do experience empathy have learned to manage it – so their stuff doesn’t interfere with their children’s natural learning process. It can be difficult, I don’t want to undermine that horrible feeling of emotional flooding, but it can be managed – once we know that’s what’s going on. I often chose not to look. Very often, I chose not to look.

Because, every time we interrupt the sequencing process – the children lose an opportunity to naturally learn. Each time they have to go back to the start of the process and relearn what they could have learned an hour ago, or yesterday, or last week. Interrupt often enough, and you know whose kids aren’t going to be managing steps, or trees, or bikes or slippery floors…

Then when they are 10 and their peers can manage to climb a tree – really, really, really high, and their mates say, “Come on, you can do it!” and they try to do the same….

Little mistakes, and child led is the key.

It is really important to ensure that children are working at the level they are physically capable of at the time. I won’t have steps up to our trampoline, but it doesn’t have walls either and our last one never had mats. The toddler can’t keep himself safe if he miss-bounces so I don’t want him on it, but I don’t want the bigger kids relying on the safety devices. When parents have mats and walls they assume that they will keep their kids safe – wrong – the kids are the best people to keep themselves safe. Take away the mats and walls – more accidents then fewer, never have the mats and walls – very few accidents.

We also have enforced rules.

One at a time. Never when it’s wet. No-one underneath.

But yes, accidents do happen. Sometimes dreadful accidents. And I wouldn’t wish them on anyone.

But let’s face it, while sometimes they happen when children are small, more often they happen when children are big.

Or, in very bad paraphrasing of Celia Lashlie, one of NZ’s great advocates for young people…

Do you want your child’s first real decision to be whether to accelerate or brake at an amber light? 

Because for many, it is.

(This is officially how I help put food on the table. If you’ve found this article useful, please feel free to use the Koha button just above my blogroll. Even the smallest amount is appreciated. 🙂 )

About Karyn @ kloppenmum

kloppenmum is me, Karyn Van Der Zwet, mother of three and ex-teacher. I'm part of a revolution in parenting, with the aim to raise mature (not sophisticated) and self-assured children. I also know some stuff about adults. I have also had articles printed in The Journal for The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (Children and Young People) and the US parenting magazine, Pathways to Family Wellness, as well I regularly write for World Moms Blog (named as one of the Forbes 100 most useful blogs for women 2012 &2013). You can follow me on facebook (kloppenmum) pinterest (Karyn at Kloppenmum) and twitter (@kloppenmum). I'm also vaguely on LinkedIn (Karyn Van Der Zwet). Thanks to Joe (Mr Hare) for taking the photo. Cheers, son: xxxx.
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38 Responses to Parents Please: Provide the Facts not the Horoscope

  1. hakea says:

    I like the statement “he needs to find its edges”.

    I really don’t like blood, or splinters. Or the wailing, two minutes after I’ve said “careful, with those golf-stick-swords”. Or the split in the head despite the rule to walk through the house.

    Kids often close their ears to their parents blah, blah. Yes, they have to learn the hard way. Sometimes they have to learn the same lesson many times.

    When I was 15 I wanted a motorbike. My dad said “no motorbike! blah blah, do you know how dangerous they are, blah blah”. I brought one home the next day. It would have been more helpful for him to pay for safe riding lessons.

    A strategy from the Positive Parenting Programme (Triple P)…
    – kids are running through the house
    Parent (said without emotion): what’s the rule about moving through the house?
    Kids: walk through the house
    Parent: show me how you walk through the house
    – kids go back and walk through the house.
    Parent: thank you for walking through the house.

    • kloppenmum says:

      Yep, used that strategy. It’s a goodie.
      I don’t do blood very well either. The Hare fell through a window when I was eight months pregnant, he was three-ish and cut to the bone. Yikes. Then there was the dislocated finger…
      Yes, kids do have to learn for themselves, and I like your point about the motorbike lessons.

  2. I agree one hundred percent. For me however, i think that once you say to a child “be careful, you are going to slip”, you have placed a mental picture in their heads of “slipping”. Our mind is a powerful thing…… I think the other thing is the break in concentration. They take their eyes off the ball to listen to what we apparently moaning about- and often that’s when things all go wrong.

    • Elena says:

      My thoughts exactly. Instead of saying “Don’t fall!” why don’t we say, “Hang on!” Put the picture in their head of something good! (But I think backing off is often a good idea as well…)

  3. kloppenmum says:

    I completely agree with the mental picture idea, bokkie. I’m sure I ‘told’our kids to fall off a few things by planting the image in their head, before I got old and wise and learned to look the other way. Thanks for commenting, you know I love it when you do. 😉

  4. Sarah C says:

    Great post! It reminded me of many students I have had in the past who I felt were at a disadvantage because they were so overprotected. For example, many parents are nervous about letting their children use scissors so when it’s time to cut paper at school they are lost.
    In our school board students are not allowed to do hand stands at recess and even cartwheels are frowned upon. I heard about another school district that does not allow children to roll snow balls for snow forts or snowmen because one student’s giant snowball rolled back on him. Terrible, yes. But necessary to make a sweeping rule for all students? No. Let kids play and test their limits.

    • kloppenmum says:

      You have got to be kidding! No cartwheels and handstands? No rolling snowballs? We purposely found a school which encouraged the children to climb trees. I love going to playgrounds etc with our children’s friends – they’re usually on top of all the equipment ! Confident. Capable. And keeping themselves safe.

  5. Laura Weldon says:

    So true. We limit our kids’ growth when we deny them the right to take risks, which is as you so cogently explain, a handicap when they face real risk. We also deny them the essential right to see themselves as able to handle the bigger challenges. They need to know they can fall, dust themselves off and get up. They need to know what that feels like in their bones and their spirits because adult life will toss crisis and change at them.

    The limits we impose on them in the name of safety are actually pretty laughable. Check out the facts in How to Live Dangerously: The Hazards of Helmets, the Benefits of Bacteria, and the Risks of Living Too Safe
    Warwick Cairns

    • kloppenmum says:

      I like the sound of that book, Laura. I have a personal vendetta against anti-bacterial soaps and lotions!
      I wonder how much children lose their sense of self by not being able to manage their own risks. The children who are self-assured are very capable when faced with risk. They ‘know’ they can manage.

  6. changengrow says:

    I pride myself on being a “different type of parent” – one who will let their child explore and learn, make mistakes and pick himself up. But, oh, your post is humbling! Yet needed. It seems I did a better job when my son was an early explorer learning to walk than I do now that he is three. How many times just yesterday did I say, “don’t xyz because you will xyz…”?!
    Thank you for reminding me to let go and let him learn.

    • kloppenmum says:

      Thank-you so much for commenting. It so easily becomes a habit to say such things. and it is awful seeing our children hurt themselves or nearly hurt themselves. And pain and discomfort are part of life: things they must learn to manage if they are going to be healthy adults. I’m sure you’ll find it easier than many parents to make the change, seeming you were able to allow his explorations when he was young. I find it difficult some times, simply because our children want to explore more than I am comfortable.

  7. lilzbear says:

    Love the title! Parents can be like horoscopes indeed! Although mine usually reads ‘You will have a wonderful encounter on the 15th and beware of jealousy on the 28th’, not ‘You’ll slip and bang your head’. 🙂
    Great post! It’s always hard to relax and have a good time around a parent who is nervous about their kids every move.

    • kloppenmum says:

      I agree, or when someone else is nervous about *your* kids because they’re doing things their kids aren’t able to do. Thanks for your support 🙂

  8. Sing it from the mountaintop, sistah! I was (and remain) one of those extremely active and physically exploratory kids who climbed to the very top top top of a tree … jumped on trampolines without pads (huh?!?! pads? what the hell are those?!?!) … and hung upside down on monkey bars … you get the picture. Did I sometimes get fall or get injured? Sure (though never did I fall from a tree). Did my mother coddle me? Hell no! She barely paid attention to me. Ever. Which results in a different kind of damage. Point is, hovering parents are suffocating. Parents striving to keep their kids in bubbles away from natural and healthy harm are doing their kids a tremendous disservice and stunting their growth. Unfortunately, that’s the the modern prevailing parental style, resulting in the nation of wimps we’ve become! Grrrrrrr…..

    Great post!

    • kloppenmum says:

      Wouldn’t it be marvellous if parents over-nurtured, under-protected, and insisted on manners…what a different world we would live in! Quite a few wimps here too…hopefully we can break the trend! Thanks for your support – always!

  9. Pingback: children’s outdoor play « hakea

  10. kaet says:

    Thanks for this – it’s certainly a principle I’ll try to bear in mind.

    However, as someone who did club trampolining I’ll admit that back-garden trampolines scare me. To bounce in the club you had to have at least one spotter (person) on each side of the bed, as a safety precaution, and spotters would get into trouble if they weren’t paying attention. We were also taught how to bounce so as not to come off, but we still had that strictly adhered to rule. (Admittedly, the one injury I got was the worst I ever saw, and I had a coach on the trampoline with me, and didn’t come off. That was a fractured and dislocated shoulder while practising somersaults.)

    I completely take the general principle, however, especially when it comes to things like climbing trees and whatever, and from recollection I’m guessing my parents did too.

    • kloppenmum says:

      Thanks for adding your perspective, Kaet. I understand what you’re saying about the trampoline, as you rightly assumed – that was just an example…I see so many with steps *and* walls, to me that’s just silly. Ouch for the injury, I hope it hasn’t had any long terms effects on your shoulder.

    • kaet says:

      I suppose I just heard of too many trampolining clubs being closed due to a perception of danger, when the vast majority of especially serious injury on trampolines occurred in people’s homes and gardens, without the proper precautions or training, both of which would have been available at those clubs.

      • kloppenmum says:

        I agree, it’s the perception of danger that often blows these things out of proportion. And I agree, trampolines can be dangerous – I guess that’s why I’m so big on children doing things at their own pace when they’re small so that they have a greater skill base when they want to try more difficult things later. Not just with trampolines, but knives, trees, swimming – everything. Accidents do happen, and they’re horrible – but I believe children need to learn to manage it.

  11. Loved the post – this is something that drives me crazy. Especially when the parents hover and predict, but when their child does get hurt, they tell the child they aren’t really hurt so stop crying!

    We try to use x,y,z MIGHT/Could happen rather than will – and really only if the likelihood of serious injury is high. By serious I mean a hospital stay.

    At the playground our girls do things many older kids can’t do yet, Ella does cartwheels all the time – she even did a couple one handed ones today. Both girls have had their own knife at the table since 2, and they both use real scissors. Ella uses a glue gun on her own, Agatha with help. However, I balk at things like letting them plug and unplug cords. At 4 Ella’s allowed to, with supervision, but the what ifs scare me.

    It always comes back to risk assessment. Broken arms or legs are relatively easy to heal. A broken neck, not so much, burns to the fingers are one thing, larger burns are something else. I trust Ella to know her physical boundaries, not as much with mental – not b/c she isn’t intelligent, but b/c she doesn’t have the knowledge base yet.
    Agatha’s a whole different category. She doesn’t know her own limits as well as Ella does, so we hover more with her. Not limiting, but ready just incase.

    • kloppenmum says:

      I agree with you completely. I am cautious with plugs too – real consequences there are just not worth it!. I think we must have a fairly similar approach. I love that our children can do things earlier than most other children…and we’ve done nothing except get out of their way. And I hover more with the Butterfly, too – it’s all age and stage. Thanks for commenting; hope that new baby continues to be delicious. 🙂

  12. Elena says:

    I spend lots of time with my toddlers as a quiet spotter, which seems to pay off in the long run. With stairs, for example, instead of forbidding them to get on the stairs, I’ll let them explore and climb to their hearts content, while I’m there just ready to catch them, not interfering at all. Pretty soon they’ve figured it out and then they are much safer then the kids who stay behind the gate all the time because their parents “don’t have time” to supervise their exploration.

    • kloppenmum says:

      It always amazes me too, that so many parents try to parent from their bottoms or own place of busy-ness. Toddlers need loitering parents. For me, as cute as they are, it’s the hardest time. And only because they are at their most inconvenient – can’t finish a conversation, can’t finish a task – but as you point out, it’s so worth it: more self-assured and capable children for sure.

  13. yelenam says:

    I do agree with your post. And yet, I have to remind myself to let it go a bit. I can’t even count how many times a day I cut myself short when starting to make one of those grim predictions. And it’s not just the words. Holding the child’s hand as he’s walking down the stairs when he’s perfectly capable of doing it on his own. “Spotting” him on a low beam or intentionally slowing down his sled when it’s totally unnecessary. They do notice it all and take it all in. Do it often enough and the child gets the message even without the words.

    • kloppenmum says:

      You’re so right, our body-language speaks volumes…in fact my next post is all about that! I find that it’s more natural for me just to state the facts now, but it took a long time and I have to be ‘conscious’ of what I am saying and doing. It is natural not to want our children to hurt themselves, and, yes, difficult to let them learn sometimes. Thanks for commenting.

  14. Trudy says:

    Great post. I’d have never thought about it like that but it is important for kids to learn to manage risk. I think some parents feel that if their kid is hurt then they are a bad parent, as opposed to the risk for injury weighed against the action being a learning lesson.

    • kloppenmum says:

      I agree, some parents don’t like their children to get hurt, and then other parents think they are bad if their children don’t take chances – so put them into situations they aren’t yet ready to manage. I’m pleased you enjoyed the post, thanks for commenting.

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