I have a confession. I posted an article in March, 2013 called “The Resiliency Gap”, in which I wrote about our observed increase in the number of children shying away from difficult challenges – particularly from trying and failing, then working through that failure and trying again. This skill of resiliency, or “stick-to-itiveness”, is imperative for a child’s development, their self-esteem and their ability to solve problems. But here is my confession…as a dad, I’m terrible at teaching this skill to my child. I talk a good game, but if my 3 year-old son is struggling with a puzzle, or with figuring out how to dress himself, I find that I am quick to step in and assist. Too quick, actually. I hate seeing him frustrated, and I have an innate urge to make his life easy. This extends to real risk-taking too – if I see him climbing something, I am quick to ask him to climb down, or rush over to assist him for fear that he might fall. If he is in any situation where there is a remote opportunity for injury, I tend to hover. And worry. And hover some more. But my son continually expresses his desire to “do it myself”, or to test his limits and the physics that govern his movements in ways that, frankly, scare me.
There are countless articles, studies and blog posts about the hovering parent; or “overparenting”; or “helicopter parenting”, and the impact that these behaviors might have on kids (here are just a few: one, two, three). Read these articles if you’d like – it will keep you busy for days. But to save you some time, the takeaway is that there is no consensus about the impact of overparenting. Some studies (like this one and this one) suggest that overprotective parenting can result in risk-averse and entitled children, in lower family satisfaction…or worse. But other researchers dispute some of these findings, and some columnists suggest that all of this attention on overparenting may be overblown. So what is a parent supposed to conclude?
It is basically this: hovering over your child and shielding them from all risk may or may not do damage, but one thing is certain – it does little good. Not allowing your child to take risks, even if it does not harm them, might keep them from developing into all that they could be. This instinct that many of us have, to protect our children as much as we can, comes from the best of places in our minds and hearts. As Richard Rende wrote in this article in Parenting Magazine, the parental need to minimize risk-taking may not be driven so much by fear of injury – it’s often more about our desire for our child to realize success. And, I would add, our desire to succeed as parents.
But our children need to take risks and learn from them. Joe L. Frost from the University of Texas in his paper The Dissolution Of Children’s Outdoor Play: Causes And Consequences, summarized this need well when he wrote: “In the real world, life is filled with risks – financial, physical, emotional, social – and reasonable risks are essential for children’s healthy development. Learning to handle risks is essential for children’s cognitive and physical skill development, which allows them to protect themselves in challenging environments. Helping children handle risk is an essential feature of adult conduct for guiding children in being responsible for themselves and for the consequences of their activity.”
This, of course, does not suggest that we encourage our kids to be reckless – just that we loosen the reins a little. Allow them to play in open, unstructured ways and encourage them to negotiate their own environment. Our job as parents is to assess the possible consequences of the risks our children are taking, and judge whether the risks are reasonable, manageable and meaningful…and when they are simply too risky. Knowing the difference and stepping in when we should, rather than all the time, is a skill. And as a skill, it can be learned.
A few weeks ago, my son was running around in our yard and began climbing the small rocky mound that serves as our sledding hill in the winter. As I walked next to him, watching him take each uncertain step on the rough, inclined terrain and teetering close to toppling over, I found myself slowing down and repeating in my mind “Don’t catch him. Don’t catch him.” The hill is not so precipitous that the fall would have hurt, but I still had to fight that instinct to stand at the ready to prop him up at the slightest waver. So I forced myself to move a little beyond arm’s reach. It wasn’t easy, nor was it natural. I reminded myself that my child has to stumble and learn that it’s OK. That he has to fall sometimes, and grow stronger as a result. That my job is not to catch him, nor to prevent him from ever falling at all…but to be there to pick him back up when he does.