To Be, or Not to Be Careful
Life is full of risks. And when we look back on the events of our lives, most of us can agree that the things that have brought us the most fulfillment are the ones that involved some element of risk or the unknown. Why, then, do we spend so much energy avoiding risks and fearing the unknown?
As parents, we are quite serious about our responsibility to keep our kids safe. We are hard-wired to do so. Even before our children are born, our main concerns revolve around their safety and wellbeing. Yet, we can’t – despite our best efforts – raise them in a protective shell. So, we teach them to be careful, to cautiously look both ways before crossing the street, to mindfully hold our hands in parking lots. As a toddler begins to explore his or her world, they constantly test boundaries. How far out can I swim? How high should I climb? When they’ve hit the limit of their safety, we gently let them know. It is a beautiful dance between parent and child: leaving our arms and then returning to find comfort there again and again.
Be careful, we tell them, for we can’t expect them to truly understand the extent of the potential dangers that exist outside of our protection.
Yet, kabbalists teach that spiritual growth and transformation only happen when we are challenged, when we step out of our comfort zones and take healthy risks. How then do we guide them? As parents, we want to encourage our children to approach life with a sense of adventure, but how do we do so while stressing the dangers they must avoid along the way?
Perhaps, we don’t.
You’ve probably heard the term, “helicopter parenting.” It became popular in the 80s and 90s as parents became more involved with their children’s activities than previous generations. It’s a style of parenting generally classified as “hovering” over a child. It can manifest in all kinds of activities, but it’s quite noticeable on the playground where kids are most likely to get a little scuffed up. To be sure, no one knows a child better than their parents and caregivers. And we’re often right when we think an activity is beyond their current skill level. However, I’ve noticed a growing trend of parents telling their children what their limits are without allowing the children to discover them on their own.
While at our local park with my youngest daughter, I observed a father rush to his own daughter on the jungle gym, almost shouting with panic, “You’re not big enough to go down that way by yourself! Let me help you!” He promptly scooped her up and brought her down to the ground. To be fair, it would have been quite a fall had she lost her footing on the way down. Though, he could have spotted her, offering a hand when she needed it, or readied his arms to catch her if she slipped. By being lifted off the platform, she wasn’t able to surprise him (or herself) by what she could do.
This dad wasn’t being a bad parent. All he is truly guilty of is loving his daughter with every bit of breath in his body. Though, I wonder what might happen if we gave our children the space to take a few (safe) risks now and again. According to Ellen Beate, a professor of early childhood education in Norway, a more laid-back approach to risk taking may actually help keep our children safer. She argues that they need practice honing their judgment about what they are and are not capable of – something they don’t get to do when we intervene. Beate also points out, it’s a lot more dangerous to let a teenager roam free in the world who has never had a chance to learn the limits of their abilities.
We tend to see our children as vulnerable, which plays on our fears of anything bad ever happening to them. What we really want to encourage is resiliency in our kids. We want them to grow up to be the kind of people who encounter obstacles with spirit and gusto, people who rise again when they are knocked down. Wendy Mogel, author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, a book about raising self-reliant children says, “Real protection means teaching children to manage risks on their own, not shielding them from every hazard.” And I agree; this idea is very much aligned with the teachings of ancient kabbalists.
When my three oldest children were smaller, I enrolled them in gymnastics. While running and jumping is fun, the sport is not without risk. In fact, a survey analyzing data from the Consumer Product Safety Commission found that within 100 U.S. emergency rooms between 1990 and 2005, about 27,000 children (ages six to 17) who participated in a gymnastics program sought medical attention in the ER each year for a gymnastics-related injury – that’s five of every 1,000 kids. I was well aware of the risks and signed a waiver anyway. As an active person, I felt it was important for my kids to learn a sense of body awareness. They need to learn how to jump, roll, and fall safely, so they can feel free to use their bodies to the fullest outside of the gym.
Every time I watched them on the trampoline I was nervous, but I was also in awe. They were brave without even realizing it. Did you know a balance beam is four feet off the floor? Four feet! I prefer to run on solid ground, thank you very much. Sure, they were taking physical risks in a padded environment, coached by professionals. But, they were allowed to try new things and test what their bodies could do.
This is just one example of taking healthy risks. There are many ways to encourage your kids to find their limits on their own. The truth is, repeatedly telling our children to “be careful” is not all that helpful. To the contrary, it teaches them fear. And choices made based on fear are not healthy ones. Fear stunts our kids and limits their innate potential and purpose. It teaches them they should avoid taking risks, stepping out of their comfort zones, or making mistakes, because bad things could happen.
Of course, we know bad things can happen. But that is not the first thought we want our kids to embrace when they come up against a challenge. With four kids, ranging in age from five to 19 years old, I’ve had a lot of experience observing children and the risks they take in every stage of development – safe or unsafe. And the conclusion I’ve come to is this: the one thing we can do to help ensure their safety may be to actually let them take the joyful and healthy risks they are inclined to take, and to perhaps teach themselves how to be careful without us hovering over their shoulders.