Staying safe through risk taking

When our children were young I had to train my husband to allow them to fall off a piece of furniture that was wobbly, rather than reaching out to steady it. He was horrified when I stood by, just watching, as our child climbed atop a stool that was clearly not stable. My reasoning: this time I am here, keeping an eye, there to catch if a very bad fall looks likely; next time I might not be. I want my children to learn to assess their own safety. I watched with amazement as other mothers rounded every corner (with special plastic curves for sharp edges) and jammed every door (with special gadgets to stop doors from shutting on little fingers), trying to make their toddlers world safe. But the world is not safe and those toddlers were made so very unsafe by their own naivety as soon as they left the carefully controlled environment of their own home. Those toddlers had not learned to watch out for sharp table tops at their head level, or to keep their little fingers away from doors. Those toddlers thought that the world was curved and soft and stable. It is not. Not at Grandma’s, or at the newsagents, or at the holiday apartment. My children, however, would know to test something’s stability before climbing atop, they would know to carry glass carefully, they would know that zips can pinch. And they didn’t know these things because I peppered their childhood with constant, “Be careful!” “Don’t run, it’s slippery” “Don’t climb up there, you’ll fall.” “Don’t touch, you’ll burn yourself.” No my children learned by slipping and bruising and slight scalding. Then they took good care; no-body wants to hurt themselves.

So, now I am faced with a teenager. Instead of high walls and hot pans, it is sex and cigarettes and late nights and missed homework deadlines. Why do I find it so much harder to trust him to learn for himself now? Of course I fear the consequences of mistakes, but is it still not true that he will learn best by his own experience?

And just the same as I might alert a toddler to the possibility of something being unsafe “That looks wobbly.” or “Thinner branches aren’t as strong as those thick ones.” so too I will inform my teenagers of the dangers in their environment. But then, if I believe my own theory, I must step back and allow them to experiment and discover for themselves.

Perhaps I am more competent than I feel. Maybe I can apply what worked before: To stay present. To observe with vigilance. To offer vital information. But then only to interfere if absolutely necessary.

Now all I need to work out is what constitutes absolutely necessary…

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Posted on 15 January 2012
Musings: Coming of age, Parenting teenagers
Tags: , , , , , , ,

2 or so comments

2 Responses to Staying safe through risk taking

  1. James McCabe says:

    If all children were born with hard hats and knee-pads, life would be a lot easier.

  2. Stoo says:

    You are very right. I had a kind of difficult childhood myself, I went to a foster home, moved many times with my dad… the instability left me to feel pretty much on my own, which has taught me to be a very good judge of character to protect myself. Once a teenager, I knew immediately who I could not trust or who had something in store for me that I knew I wouldn’t like. Hell, even as a kid I knew, when a social worker came home and my mom told me that someone was coming just to talk to me (it would be about getting me in a foster home). I don’t know how I knew, I had absolutely no sign this would happen, but I just knew that I wouldn’t like whatever the guy was going to talk to me about.

    Though my mom was kind of overprotective because I had a genetic disease from birth. So she was all “no germ, no glass, straw sharing”. But she was not “don’t do this” overprotective, because as a kid, she was pretty daredevil and tomboyish herself… so she was more the kind who would take my hand and bring it close to a pan to SHOW me that it was burning hot, or once she punched my shoulder hard enough for it to hurt me, then she asked me “Did it hurt?” I said “Yes”. Then she said that if I went in the street and was hit by a car, it would hurt a hundred times more, that it would break my bones, that I would bleed a lot and cry a lot. I got the message and stayed away from the street. Overprotective moms who just keep telling their kids to stay away from the street because they’ll be hit by a car are no good, because kids don’t understand the implications. The kids are just going to do whatever their parents tell them not to when they’re not looking, because they didn’t learn what’s dangerous and how it’s dangerous.
    So my mom taught me to keep myself safe by showing me or alerting me about unsafe things, too. It worked great.

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