If there’s a person who knows a thing or two about falling, it’s Jessie Graff. But for the American Ninja Warrior phenom, the important part is getting back up. Through a new video series called Stunt Sitter, Graff teaches self-described “helicopter” parents how to let kids take risks and even – gasp – fail. We asked Graff what mums and dads can do to raise children who are resilient, confident and tough, both physically and mentally.
Teach Them to Assess Risks
Raising brave kids isn’t about cutting the cord and letting them go off on their own, the stuntwoman believes. Instead, help them take calculated risks.
Graff, whose mum is an obstacle master as well, remembers the thought processes her parents would take her through whenever she wanted to try something new.
“If I told them, ‘You know, I want to climb to the top of this cliff,’ they didn’t say no.
“They said, ‘OK, well let’s think about it. Do you think all those rocks are super solid?’ Yes. ‘Are you strong enough to get to the top of it?’ Oh yeah, I’m definitely strong enough. ‘OK, well how high have you climbed before?’ Ten feet. ‘OK, well this is close to 50 feet. That’s five times as high, plus once you get up, you have to get back down. Maybe we should do some tests at a climbing gym to see if you’re strong enough to do that.’
“So later, when I was out playing with my friends, I had the tools to look at a rock and say, ‘Yes, I can climb this,’ or, ‘No, this one’s not safe. I’m going to make a smarter choice.'”
Celebrate Nice Falls
Graff says parents need to teach kids how to fall. (To do it safely, you’ve gotta roll with it.) Because if they don’t learn when they’re little, it will hurt so much more when they’re bigger. When falls happen – and yes, they will happen – don’t freak out.
“Have you ever seen a kid who, like, wipes out, splays out on the floor, and then they pause? They’re not sure how to react. I’ve seen so many parents gasp in horror and run over and coddle them and be like, ‘Oh my gosh, are you OK?’ And so the kid immediately learns, ‘I fell down and this is a disaster,’ and they burst into tears.
“If you can get to that moment when they’re not sure what to do and be like, ‘That was awesome! Great fall, you’re so tough! What did you get? Oh yeah, you got a scrape. All right! I’ll show you how to take care of it,’ a lot of the time, they will be like, ‘OK cool.’
“Sure, there’ll be other times when there’ll be a couple of tears, and then you can be like, ‘Man, that was a tough one. How did you trip? Let’s figure out how to do it better next time.’ Each fall is such a good learning experience.”
Kids fall down a lot, and they hurt themselves a lot. It's a feature, not a bug. You gotta crawl before you can walk, you gotta walk before you can run, and you gotta trip over your clumsy feet 5000 times before your brain can figure out how to operate your limbs.Read more
Remind Them They They Can Always Change Their Story
Superheroes can be powerful figures for children – especially if they learn to embody their best traits. Graff’s motto: Be your own hero.
“In so many fairy tales, the princess is waiting for the hero to come save her. Part of my message is, that’s cool, but I want to know that I can save myself, that I don’t need to wait around for someone else to take care of me. I can look at a situation and become whatever I need to become in order to rescue myself. Like, if I’m running late and getting stressed about it, I can think, ‘Well, what would a hero do here?’ and then be that hero for myself.”
Kids can do the same thing. A study showed that kids who pretended to be characters like Batman while working persevered longer. That $5 cape may really have superpowers, even if only psychological.
Give Them Space
It isn’t that Graff’s parents didn’t have the same fears of their child getting hurt as any other mum and dad – they did, but they held back. And that made all the difference, she says. When she was six, they signed her up for circus classes after she became obsessed with the flying trapeze.
“I remember them clenching their fists while watching me, ready to dive in and help me any way that they could. But they kept their distance so that I had that room to try things and learn how to move through my environment and fall and get back up. They knew that I was going to be out in the world and I was going to grow up.”
For parents, it isn’t easy to let kids experience pain, but as Graff believes, by sheltering them from it, they will never know what they’re capable of.