Parents: Allow your Children to Manage their OWN Risk

Alongside Mr Hare using his abilities in Executive Function last Friday, (Executive Function – A Story) there was also an aspect of managed risk in the scenario.

Mr Owl (age six) decided to tag along for the ride and took his scooter to use on his journey home – alone. Mr Hare (age nine) had to wait at the bus-stop alone for around 10 minutes until his bus was due.

While it’s natural to want to protect our children from danger, the reality is they need to learn to manage it for themselves. They will be places where we are not. They will have to face situations which challenge them – alone. They will leave home – eventually. And like many other things in life, learning to manage risk does not happen over-night magically when they turn 16, 18 or 21.

In real-life, when we learn something there needs to be a small shot of stress involved. Too much stress and we are overwhelmed. Too little and we don’t learn a thing.

So when our babies learned to roll – we didn’t stop them from banging their heads on the floor. They banged them a few times, sometimes hard, and then learned for themselves to lift their head higher. (Yes, we comforted them with Boring Cuddles if they hurt themselves. Quick Way to Stop Children Fussing.)

When our boys were learning to walk, we didn’t prevent them from falling or even rolling down steps a little – although we might have broken their fall if we had been close, we still lowered them to the ground as if they had fallen. We did the same when they climbed and slipped or rolled off something which they had climbed on. We hovered a little until they were around 18 months old – but beyond then they were capable of managing for themselves.

They had already learned to manage for themselves and they had already learned they could manage for themselves.

Yes, they often hurt themselves a little, and sometimes a lot, when they began to do some things and then they hurt themselves less – as they learned to trust their own judgement and how to keep themselves safe.

We didn’t, in any way, push them to do things they weren’t internally motivated to do. We also didn’t often prevent them from doing things they wanted to do. We allowed them to gain independence and skills as they naturally were inclined to – in their own time.

I won’t, for example, place Mr Butterfly on the trampoline (it has no steps) but neither do we have a wall around it – the older boys know they cannot abdicate responsibility to a safety device – they have to keep mindful of their body in space and correct mid-bounce if necessary. (We do have mats on this one, but didn’t on an earlier one.) Likewise, I won’t put Mr Butterfly up in a tree he can’t climb by himself.

Both of the older boys managed the small amount of risk on Friday morning. Mr Owl got home on his scooter having made his way down an alleyway, across a road around the corner and home. Mr Hare managed to wait at the bus-stop and catch the bus to school.

These were things with which they were familiar and had done repeatedly with us. They assessed all the information, because they had to; no-one was there to rescue them or do the thinking for them.

It’s like building foundations for later: the small risks they take now and manage will give them the experience, skills and confidence to deal with bigger risks later.

Many modern western children have very few chances to manage slightly risky situations when they are young. How can they be expected to manage risk when they reach their teens and/or leave home?

PS A word to the wise – should you not have been doing this and you want to begin, be prepared for a month or so of extra bangs and ouches as your children realise that you have stopped rescuing them/over-protecting and begin to take personal responsibilty.

(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. 🙂 )

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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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20 Responses to Parents: Allow your Children to Manage their OWN Risk

  1. The sad news is that I know parents who won’t allow their 12 yr olds in their fenced yard unsupervised. I’ve met mothers that helmet their toddlers to protect their heads when learning to walk. And today I witnessed a boy of about eleven or so unable to navigate the playground equipment without falling. Frustrated he declared the whole thing boring and sat on the edge while his friends played. My almost 3 yr old managed most aspects asking me to help in specific ways when needed. My 4.5 yr old balked in a couple places, I offered help, she said no and went somewhere else – after I moved away she came back and tackled the difficult portion on her own.

    In some ways I’m afraid of the time when they’ll be able to handle more risk, but as you said, they won’t magically wake up at 18 knowing how to navigate the world.

    • I don’t know which one of your stories frightens me the most: the 12 year-old not being allowed to manage or the 11 year-old who clearly cannot! Yikes. I can’t imagine what kind of society it will create if children are so over-protected. Not a healthy one, I’m sure. And while I am constantly freaked out by the extent our eldest and youngest want to take on more and more risk – I also feel it is CRUEL not to allow them (within some limits) to test themselves as they feel inclinded. I have actually compared the effects of something called Zoocosis (the effects of living in unnatural situations including limited space to roam on animals) and guess what…the effects we see on many people in western society are pretty similar. Scary eh?!

      • It is pretty scary. But I find so much of today’s world scary. We take our young girls to the playground and it’s hit or miss if anyone’s there. On the rare occasions someone is there, they often leave (no socializing among children of course), and I’ve seen many parents pull younger children away when an older (10-12ish) child comes to play. It seems ingrained in some parents that children need to be protected from the world and everyone in it, and that children should only play with others of the same age.

        Heh, I’ve seen similar behaviour (zoochosis) in my girls when something prevents us from getting out for free play for a day or two, I couldn’t imagine what it would be like if they were always inside and/or never allowed to manage their own world.

        • I’m starting to realise *just* how lucky we are here in NZ. We have our over-protective parents for sure, but I’m not aware of it to the same extent that you’ve mentioned. And when all said and done (as you’ve implied) our kids are so much better behaved when they’ve had a good blast of time outside – plus it gives me some natural down-time while they potter around doing their own thing. Thanks for your continued support – it is appreciated!

  2. Pingback: Parents: Allow your Children to Manage their OWN Risk (via kloppenmum) « Scaredmom's Blog

  3. Laura Weldon says:

    Exactly! The “managed childhood” of today creates passive, risk-ignorant adults. I first encountered this topic in John Holt’s quite radical book, Escape From Childhood. If my memory serves, I recall him comparing tribal families who were totally non-plussed by toddlers near ponds, fires, and sharp objects. No one fussed, warned, or rushed to save them. The children picked up cues as our species has always done and remained safe. He then talked about a family in a busy airport. They didn’t expend effort to watch their toddler, who was raised to manage his own risk. The child watched to see that he stayed with his family while quite happily accompanying them. Not that I agree with everything Holt had to say, his contentions were pretty out there, but I do think the coercion involved in fussing over kids may indeed cause quite a bit of adverse behavior.

    • Jean Leidloff has the same reaction in her book ‘The Continuum Concept.’ I think it’s not silly to be more mindful of our children’s safety – we do have traffic and in many cases over-crowding to deal with that more natural societies don’t – and I think many many western parents are positively neurotic about their children’s safety. I simply cannot be healthy for a child (who’s brain is basically built to solve-problems) not to have the chance to think for themselves. No wonder so many teens go mad when they get to university!

    • We lost our 2 yr old for about an hour while at Disney World. She was normally allowed a lot of trust and freedom, but she decided she was off to see Mickey on her own, so took off for the buses. A child will quite happily accompany the parents when it fits their agenda – the parents still need to have a couple dozen sets of eyes. Around home in non-crowded areas sure. But at a busy shopping mall, airport, or any place that allows a 2 yr old to hop onto a bus unnoticed I say it’s the parents job to keep the littles safe and close to mom and dad.

      • Absolutely. Our 21 month old has taken to running about while we’re in carparks. *That* is a time to keep hims safe and is totally my responsibility. Crowds haven’t been much of an issue (on the grounds there aren’t any real ones!) but our older boys instinctively stick close when we’re in busy places anyway. I can see Mr Butterfly being a little more random – but we can work with that!

  4. janektcs says:

    I think this is a very important issue. When my younger daughter went to college, the parents of other incoming freshmen were asking questions like, “How will I know if my child has been kidnapped from her room? What if her roommates don’t notice that she doesn’t come back at night?” My daughter, being both very adventurous and very responsible from a young age, had already spent three months on the other side of the country and a semester in South America. (I was delighted to know she would spend the year in a dormitory in Washington DC!)
    I found it scary to think that those other parents were sending their kids to college with so little faith in their abilities to deal with the world–and so little experience being away from each other! I think children pick up the vibes from their parents–the ones that say, “The world is a scary place and you can’t handle it without me!” And then when suddenly they are young adults, they are thrown out into the big world without that experience of knowing, “I can make good decisions, solve problems, and be strong in the world.” Let’s give them practice, a bit at a time, from a young age. Then they will know how to be responsible when they leave us!

    • I completely agree, Jane. How awful for both the parent who doesn’t trust their child to manage and for the near-adult-child. And to add to your comment – think what that does to ones sense of self: my parents don’t think I can manage…awful.

  5. hakea says:

    A tragic event has affected parents here deeply and made them more cautious. A boy aged 13 headed from home to catch a bus to the local shopping centre, to buy Christmas gifts. He was never seen again. There have been many inquiries, and it is believed that 2 men abducted him at the bus stop. There is no hope for the boy’s return. http://danielmorcombeinvestigation.blogspot.com/

    This was about 8 years ago, and it has always been a very public case due to the amount of mystery and heartbreak involved. A few years later, an 8 year-old girl went into a toilet in a shopping centre by herself and was killed. http://www.mcps.wa.edu.au/home/sofia/

    These events have left a lot of parents asking what is acceptable risk whilst not wanting to wrap their kids in bubble wrap or focus on random but tragic events. They are a reminder that bad stuff happens and raise questions about how much risk we can mitigate through the decisions we make.

    Regarding my own children’s safety, I say that I only have myself and my children to answer to. I am the one who will have to justify my decisions (and live with them) if something goes wrong.

    • Oh that’s awful. Yes we had similar cases with both six year-old Tresea Cormack (walking to school) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teresa_Cormack in 1981 and 13 year-old Kirsa Jensen http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kirsa_Jensen_case who was riding her horse along the waterfront in 1983. And yes it did make parents more sensitive to danger. As tragic as these events are, and they truly are tragic – I would never want to mimialise the impact these events had on the families and friends – there are more teenagers and young adults who drive/drink/drug themselves to death or who put themselves in danger with sexual partners. In the end, all parents have to live with the consequences of the freedom (or not) they give their children when young – I think about this every time our boys are out exploring alone.

    • While watching Peter Pan it was noted that Peter Pan cut off Hook’s hand and fed it to the crocodile. The discussion came up on whether it was okay for Peter to do what he did – we said that b/c hook was an adult trying to harm Peter it was RIGHT for Peter to do as he did. We’ve also had a scare recently where I (possibly slightly paranoid) thought someone may have been trying to take one of my girls. We talked about what to do if someone ever tried to grab the girls. I don’t think the girls were frightened by the conversation, but it was information they have and will help keep them safe. We’ll talk about it again in the future.

      Incidentally, if an adult does try to grab a child the best thing a child can do is 1, yell “S/he’s not my mommy/daddy, let me go” 2, gouge out their eyes/nose. 3, kick scream as much as possible.

      It doesn’t do anyone any good to have children left alone outside without an ability to be safe, but it also doesn’t do any good to have them, or their parents, afraid to leave the house alone. A child that never has the freedom to be out alone is more likely to become a victim when left alone for the first time just due to the fact that they don’t already have the information needed. Parents believe that by protecting their children when young allows them to learn what they need before going out on their own, but it doesn’t – and that is where managed risk comes in. We let our 4 yr old go next door on her own – but we can see her the entire time. As she gains confidence in doing that task we can give her more information on what to look for so SHE can know it’s safe. Once she’s confident in that we can increase the distance. IMO Manged risk starts with perceived freedom, the child believes she’s out on her own, unaware that mom and dad can see her the entire time. Mom and dad can see if she’s aware of potential danger or not. Mom and dad can then give more information as needed, and everyone gains confidence in the child’s ability to safely navigate the world.

      • hakea says:

        This line of discussion has just reminded me of an experiment conducted by a current affairs show here recently. I don’t normally watch these shows but happened upon it and it was interesting.

        They got a group of four families. Each of the families had previously discussed with their kids safety when home alone, ie., don’t answer the door or phone. The parents thought the kids had ‘got it’. The producers of the show then set up a scenario where the parents said they just had to go and get some bread and milk leaving the kids home alone with all of the usual warnings from the parent before departing. Cameras recorded what occurred. Three of the four home-alone set of siblings (aged between 8 and 13 years) answered the door to a stranger (part of the experiment) and let him enter the home and yard, and told him that their parents were out for good measure. Interesting, eh?

        On a completely different tangent – the majority of harm comes to children from people that they know.

        • That’s the great tragedy of course: most harm is done to children by people they already know.
          I think I heard about that experiment too – very interesting.

        • Yes, that’s why they do fire drills – and when the girls are more comfortable with speaking about the dangers we’ll do drills as well. Just little things like having someone else the girls may or may not know try to pick them up after a class or playdate, see what happens. Talk about it, and move on. The more a person practices, the better it is. Growing up we had drills for every form of danger imaginable – I don’t intend to go that far, but think in some ways my parents were right. When I was 14 I went on a trip across country with friends, around home I was allowed out and about without supervision, while traveling from the age of 7 and 11 my sister and I could be on our own, and from the age of 12 on we could be on our own while traveling.

          And yes, the tragedy is that most harm is done by people they know. I don’t want my girls to know that, but I realize it is the case, and will talk to them about it at some point as well.

      • Completely agree: 100%. 🙂

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