If we accept the idea that, as parents, we need to help our children develop problem-solving skills by allowing them to confront and solve their own problems by taking a step back, we then have to ask ourselves just how far back should we step. From the parental perspective, we can use the example of physical danger to test our boundaries and later apply this learning to the idea of emotional danger. Interestingly, it does seem that our brains do not distinguish between physical and emotional dangers when we face them, so our bodies reactions are the same regardless. It makes sense that our reactions to a child’s potential danger would also be the same.
How far would you be willing to allow your child to be exposed to potential physical danger? This is an important point as the child’s world revolves around play and it is often dangerous. It is a constant cost/benefit analysis that we are involved in. For example, there have been many broken wrists, legs, arms and necks from tree-climbing accidents. Young children see trees as a challenge. They are curious to see what is ‘up there’. They imagine new worlds, perhaps their own kingdom within the leaves. They are drawn to it. Yet, do you allow your child to climb, and if so, how far and with what support? How valuable do you see the tree climbing experience as and at what point is this value outweighed by the physical danger?
There are no right or wrong answers to these difficult questions, although over the past couple of decades societal attitudes in many countries have drifted more towards fearing risk than valuing experience. It’s like a shifting scale with experience on one side and safety on the other, both being clearly important, but we must lean towards one or the other. Where do we rest? The changing nature of playground equipment is an example of this shift. In Australia, for example, you will not find swings in many primary schools now. Twenty years ago, it would have been hard to find a primary school without a set. Not surprisingly, schools have experienced accidents on swings. They presented a risk. That degree of risk used to be acceptable, but now it is not. Now monkey bars are disappearing. It is like the slow extinction of a type of animal that is no longer suited to changing environmental conditions.
Yet risk is a big deal, particularly to a parent. I remember a few years ago sending my younger daughter who was 14 at the time by herself to Australia to stay with my older daughter who was 19, in her university dormitory. There was, of course, no end to the disasters that I could imagine befalling my younger daughter. I had to decide which way I needed to lean, towards experience or towards safety. Thinking back on my own experiences didn’t help. When I was 15, I travelled on a cargo ship in Papua New Guinea for a three-day journey to visit a friend in a town that was years later completely destroyed in a volcanic eruption. When I arrived, I wandered from the port and got myself quite lost as there were no Google Maps in 1984. A group of young men, all carrying machetes, which was not uncommon, followed me for a while and eventually approached trying to entice me into their car. I wasn’t too keen on the offer. The initial polite requests became more insistent and aggressive to the point that I thought they were just about to grab me. I start slowly backed away, but two circled behind blocking my exit. My anxiety levels obviously increased, surrounded by the machete holding strangers. I was just about to drop my bag and flee when a very old man who had been sitting by a tree slowly approached. A walking stick supported his frail frame, smiling, friendly. They froze. He moved closer and spoke softly to the young men. I’ll never know who he was or what he said, but the young men moved away, cautious, perhaps even a little scared. My elderly saviour took me under his wing. He asked me where I wanted to go and motioned for me to follow. I stayed close and no one bothered me. It seemed that I had accidentally wandered into a place that I probably should have avoided. It could have ended much differently. In life, we sometimes stumble into tricky situations.
The point of that story is that we can imagine all types of potential disasters happening to our children and the problem is that most of them are quite possible. Perhaps not probable, but possible. I think that the important part of the decision making process is to ensure that we consciously recognize which way we are leaning – towards the experience or towards safety. I want my children to be perfectly safe, yet I have always struggled with the sadness of opportunity lost trying to lean toward opportunity – despite my fears. You can be too safe. Unfortunately, life was not designed to be easy for us as parents and it is a constant struggle.