What are children learning when the adults around them are constantly worried about their safety? That they can’t be trusted? That they are likely to make mistakes and bad choices? That the world is an unsafe place and if we weren’t there to protect them, something unpleasant or dangerous would happen?
When adults say, “Be careful!” or “That’s not safe!” the child has two choices. 1. Believe the adult, and assume that whatever the child was planning or trying to do is not a good idea and should be avoided, or 2. rebel, thinking, “I can do it!!” and risk the displeasure of the adult and also the possible consequences (natural or adult-imposed) of ignoring the advice. Not ideal.
I think that we want children to think, “I can do it!!” as much as possible in life, don’t we?
If a parent or teacher is genuinely concerned that injury is imminent, a simple observation works wonders. “That branch does not look very strong to me…” or “I wonder what will happen if you land on that hard spot?” or even, “I feel nervous because your shoes are slippery from the rain.”
If you really can’t stand to let them take the risk, of course you are the adult and can say, “That looks like so much fun, I want to let you try but I feel too worried that you’ll get hurt. Can you help me think of a way to make it safer? Can we do it this way over here with these sturdier materials/where it’s not quite so high/where there are no other children?”
Author Roald Dahl is quoted as saying, “The more risks you allow children to take, the better they learn to take care of themselves.” If children try something that feels physically or emotionally risky and they succeed, there is no better source of authentic self-esteem and pride! If they try and fail, they have learned that failure is survivable. If they are willing to keep trying, eventually practice pays off. It’s useful when faced with a new challenge to remember past struggles that are now easy!
Cheering people on when they are attempting something difficult is also a way to create community. If you can establish a space in your home or classroom where risk-taking is encouraged and efforts are applauded, then children may believe you that bravery is not about being big and strong like a superhero. Fearlessness is not marked by the absence of fear, it is the art of mastering fear. Courage is giving your best try, and trying to help others, even when you feel unsure or scared. Especially then.
Let us support the next generation into becoming people who aren’t afraid. Author Tara Brach says, “Playing it safe requires that we avoid risky situations–which covers pretty much all of life.” If kids can grow up taking risks, they won’t have to learn how to do that when they’re older. I’ve never heard someone say, “I really wish my parents and teachers had stopped me from trying more things in order to keep me safe growing up!”