“Can I, Mum, can I?” she asks with big, round eyes.
Every fibre of my being wants to scream, “No,” or, “But be careful.” The protective instinct is super strong in this mama bear but instead I just nod and say, “Give it a go, if you want to.”
It’s natural, of course, our protectiveness. And there’s no denying it’s good for our children to feel loved and comfortable and safe, and that is what our protectiveness communicates. isn’t it? Well, actually, probably not! Of course, it is important for children to feel confident in themselves but our over-protectiveness can actually undermine our good intentions, communicating a belief that it is only through our protection that our children can manage, that they actually can’t do it safely themselves. And in one moment we chance destroying the very self-confidence (and it’s sister, autonomy) that we have worked so hard to nurture. For many of us, a constant, internal battle wages between wanting to protect our cubs and understanding (at least cognitively) the benefits of letting them assume more personal responsibility for risk taking. And, if you are anything like me, you are most definitely a work in progress when it comes to letting go.
It makes sense that children who are free to take reasonable risks develop greater self confidence and are more willing to have a go. They are often more physically capable and learn to keep trying in the face of failure. They are generally more resilient and overall much less fearful. So there is a lot to be said for loosening the ties that bind. The question then becomes, what is reasonable when it comes to my child and risk?
Weighing up the risk
The truth is you are already making choices that impact the well being of your child each and every day. as parents we spend a large part of our parenting lives weighing risks versus rewards when it comes to our children’s activities;
“Shall I let her play in the school netball team or is she already doing enough?”
“Is he too tired today for an after school visit with friends?”
“If she skips her nap today so that we can go to the beach, will she be an emotional wreck all afternoon?”
We know our child best, and it is within the bounds of our safe, loving relationship and our knowledge of our own child, their personality and capabilities that we make decisions that we think are in their best interest (though, to be fair, teachers also develop close relationships, assess risk and make choices on our children’s behalves once child care or school is part of the equation).
So how do we make the right choices for our children (and help them to make wise choices) when it comes to risk? Whether it be physical, social or cognitive risks, asking this series of simple questions can be a great place to start. Consider;
1. What is the worst that can happen? When the worse case scenario is negative but not overly serious, we might let our child go ahead and if the worse happens, use the outcome as a lesson in consequences.
2. What is the likelihood that the worse will happen? Being realistic about the probability, of course.
3. What will be the benefit to my child if I say yes? After all, when the potential benefit outweighs the level of risk, a learning opportunity is presented.
4. Are there simple modifications to the environment or situation that will make me more comfortable to say yes? For example, reminding the risk taker to watch for bystanders, or moving obstacles, or equipping the child with the tools she may need to navigate the challenge safely.
As well as asking ourselves these questions, teaching our children to also analyse potentially risky situation with the same series of questions can only help them to learn to use good judgments and make positive choices.
What if my child is resistant to taking risks?
Some children are by their very nature more adventurous and more comfortable taking risks (which presents its own parenting challenges) while others are more tentative or risk adverse. Supporting the child who is resistant to risk taking requires lots of patience, support and encouragement as they learn to conquer their fears.
1. Talk it out: Don’t downplay their fears but be a pillar of empathy and encouragement and (as appropriate) talk your child through the questions above. Identify potential problems, talk about the likelihood of the worst occurring and brainstorm potential solutions together. By talking with you your child will learn that there are many different ways to approach and solve difficulties, and your unwavering understanding and support might just be the encouragement they need to try.
2. With physical risk taking, spot your child if necessary. Use guiding and encouraging words as they tackle the challenge, supporting them to do it safely. Avoid being overtly anxious for your child, giving him space and time to do it his way, reserving your verbal help or encouragement for when it is appears to be needed as too much unnecessary help can actually be a distraction to safe execution.
If your are nervous, trust your child to know their limits. Most children who are risk averse will only go as far as they feel comfortable, and if they are not capable of going up without your assistance, maybe they aren’t ready for that particular challenge just yet.
3. Recognise that children will often need to repeat an activity over and over again as their bodies learn mastery over a new skill or achievement. Give them space and time to play and explore these feelings of self reward.
4. Celebrate your child’s achievements, however small. Let them know that what they can accomplish now is enough, and give lots of positive reinforcement for small steps forward, “Wow, I saw you climbed up to the fourth rung on the tall ladder. That must have been really hard work and you did it! That was awesome.”
Learning to let go has to be one of the biggest challenges some of us face as parents. As for me, I am trying to remind myself regularly of the benefits of letting my children learn to trust themselves through taking healthy risks… while I stand on the sidelines and watch through the fingers covering my face!
How do you manage the process of letting go to let them learn through risk taking?