For part of my childhood, from about 9 to 13 years old, I lived in a house with a creek just beyond its backyard. I’d go down to my friend’s house on the corner and we’d “creek-walk” our way up the street and around our neighbourhood.
Sometimes we stuck to the banks of the creek; sometimes we’d walk in the water, up and around the corner until it got deeper and deeper. When we reached the point where the water came up to our necks, we’d turn and wade our way back home.
Most of us have stories like this from our childhood. And yet by today’s standards, some might consider it downright neglectful to let a couple of 11-year-olds roam in and around a body of water without supervision. Of course, it wasn’t considered neglectful then, in the 1990s, so why might it be now? Was something about our exploration inherently dangerous? We knew to never go down into the creek after a rainfall, when it would turn into something more closely resembling a rushing river. We never explored at dusk or by ourselves; we always stuck together.
There were risks, though. We often came home with bumps, scratches and bruises from stepping on too-sharp rocks in the summer or slipping on ice in the winter. Neither of us were strong swimmers, so if we’d ever gotten cocky and ventured a little too far, things might have gotten dicey. But for the most part, we knew our limits and we stuck to them.
Danger versus risk
Call it “helicopter parenting” or being “overprotective”, but parents now are tending toward not only protecting their kids but actively attempting to prevent any harm from befalling them. There is a difference, though, between handing over a pack of matches and telling a kid he can play with them and teaching him how to safely build a fire. One is dangerous; the other is risky.
For something to be dangerous, it doesn’t just have the potential to inadvertently result in some kind of harm; it is likely to end in harm. To choose to do the dangerous thing is often reckless. Or, as my son’s martial arts teacher says, it would be stupid. “Tell your friends you’re not jumping off the cliff because jumping off cliffs is stupid,” he says.
Trying to cross a neighbourhood side street? Eh, there’s always a bit of risk involved, so we learn to look both ways before we cross. It’s still not foolproof, but crossing side streets is a thing we have to do sometimes, so we learn to do it as safely as possible. (Trying to cross the freeway, however? That would be stupid.)
Child development specialist Rebecca Weingarten tells Today’s Parent that parents should first think about what makes something risky for your child given your particular circumstances:
What is risky in Brooklyn, New York, on a Saturday night isn’t the same as what’s risky in rural Louisiana. “You have to find what works for you,” says Weingarten. “It won’t — and shouldn’t — look like everyone else’s.”
Look for ways to teach your kids that taking a risk — and sometimes experiencing a negative outcome — is not only part of life, it’s actually OK. Find areas where you and your kids are both comfortable with taking a little risk and then model good judgement. Show them how to safely chop vegetables with the sharp knife, for example. Let them slide the cake into the hot oven. Show them how to look for and test out sturdy branches when you’re climbing a tree.
Weingarten says to focus on doing things with our kids rather than for them.
A lot of times, we don’t even realise that we’re doing things for our kids. It starts at a young age, like holding their hands across a balance beam or trying to shield them from disappointment. “Let kids try things on their own and rebel a little,” says Weingarten. “This is how they learn about themselves.”
When my son was 2 years old, we took him to the Maryland shore for the first time. The first time the water touched his toes, it was clear that he was hooked. At first, he’d stand at the edge where the water could barely reach him, clinging to a grown-up’s hand. But as each year went by, there was less hand-holding and more jumping and splashing into waves.
His father and grandfather, who’ve been swimming at the same shore since they were his age, talk to him about how to watch the waves and turn your body this way to brace yourself or that way to dive into them. He gets knocked over. He goes under and comes up sputtering. And every time it happens, he learns a little something and gets his feet under him a little bit steadier.
Swimming in the ocean will always be risky, no matter how strong of a swimmer he becomes. But, for him, it won’t be dangerous.