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Is there such a thing as TOO SAFE?

Since becoming a parent, and particularly since moving to the US, I feel as though I have been unwittingly enrolled in an anxiety competition. And believe me, I’m doing my very best to lose this particular race.

Parenting and worry seem to go hand in hand. It’s as though the moment we became parents, our hearts were yanked form our bodies and now walk around independently on pudgy little feet, with clumsy little heads that don’t watch for corners or completely grasp the concept of gravity.

“Worry is like a rocking chair: it gives you something to do but never gets you anywhere.” ― Erma Bombeck

But countless thinkers and authors have pointed out that all this worry and anxiety about safety has gotten out of hand. The fact is, kids need to be able to take risks in order to learn the limitations of their bodies and of the world. Remember that just one generation ago, children in the US were out on the streets, running in cute little gangs, catching frogs, and setting fire to things, with only the adult instruction to “come home when the street lights came on”. Parents literally didn’t know where they were, much of the time. Can you imagine that today? That kind of childhood, free from adult supervision, with license to take risks and navigate the line between safety and danger through real, hands on experience, is a tragic loss of childhood today that needs to be restored.

“But wait!” you say. “The world is so much more dangerous today! There are more pedophiles! The internet! Kidnapping! Processed sugar!…”

According to Lenore Skenazy (Free Range Kids), Peter Gray (Free to Learn) and Gever Tully (Dangerism) – the world is no more dangerous today. In fact, it’s probably safer. The idea that our kids are at higher risks is a myth sold to us by the media, who’s primary agenda is promoting sensationalism, and therefore, ratings.

Worrywarts that we may be, most of us don’t really want our children growing up with the idea that they live in a dangerous world where they need constant protection. In fact, for many of us, dangers are few and far between, and the risks (when we’re true to the statistics) are honestly minuscule. Living in a worst case scenario is called “catastrophic thinking” – that means always imaging the worst. It’s a miserable way to live.

Also, making small mistakes when you’re small gives you the practice of good judgement that can save you from big mistakes when you’re big. Whereas having someone hover over you to protect you or shouting “be careful” all the time sends the message that you can’t be trusted, which is usually a self fulfilling prophecy, seeing as trust begets trustworthiness.

Trust begets trustworthiness.

Ideas to Avoid the Danger of Safety

  • Allow your children to do for themselves what they’re interested in.
    If you truly deem it too dangerous for them to go it alone, give them minimal guidance and step back as soon and as much as possible. (Teaching a four year old the basics of using a knife, for example, and then slowly removing yourself from his supervision as his skills increase).
  • Let them stretch their capabilities.
    Remember you can’t learn to walk without falling. Babies who aren’t allowed to fall, essentially can’t learn to walk. The same is true for every skill and step our children take, from lighting fire to riding a bike. The gradual process of transferring the decision making to them ensures that their skills are being built up in a way that allows them to take healthy risks.
  • Let them out of your sight whenever possible and safe.
    Kids today get no time away from adults! That sucks, because it is often the time they enjoy the most… when they are truly free to do whatever they please, and make their own decisions. Do you have a safe backyard? A park? A room? A friends house? Or checkout the genius of the ideas in Playborhood by Mike Lanza for more ways to give kids freedom.
  • Use the mantra “If you feel safe, I trust you”.
    One of the important elements of safety is safe. Someone who is anxious and worried will be clumsier, more flustered and hesitant – whereas their confident counterpart may be more surefooted, communicative and clear headed. When we decide what’s safe and what isn’t without concern for our children’s internal experience of safety we’re bypassing this important element: developing their own intuition and internal confidence.
  • Instead of “be careful”, give information.
    Could there be anything more distracting and inhibiting than someone shouting “be careful!” whilst you attempt to do something challenging? It really doesn’t help you at all. If there’s some information you think your child is missing, give it to them succinctly: “The floor is slippery” “That wall is very high” and then trust their judgement.
  • Look away if necessary.
    If you think it’s really probably safe, but it gives you the heebie-jeebies, look away. An anxious looking parent biting their teeth at you while you try to climb the rope ladder is sure to make you fall, only to provide further justification for their anxiety.
  • Trust your intuition but be wary… anxiety is contagious.
    If you know you’re afraid of dogs, but there’s really nothing to be afraid of, do your very best not to pass this on to your kids. We often have our own messed up alarms that go off at all the wrong times (cute little poodle = demonic vampire bat). Anxiety is contagious, and what we’re afraid of sends a clear message to our kids to be afraid as well. Unless you’re ready to model bravery and overcoming fears, try to offer them opportunities to be exposed to things you’re scared of, preferably without you.
  • Resist the idea the worrying is “doing something”.
    Let trust take up your mind space instead of worry. Often we worry just because we don’t know what else to do. Practice the art of mindfulness, stay in the moment, and be open to what is truly happening before your eyes. It is not an emergency. Fill that space with trust, rather than worry. It feels better for everyone.

Let’s allow children to take measured risks, to be alone, and to take ownership of their experiences. Let’s not give in to the cultural norm that insists our children are incompetent. They’re immature – but there’s a big difference.


Do you allow your children to take some measured risks? Which? When? How? 

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