“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.
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