Is it Scary or is it Dangerous?
A few weeks ago I went out to check on my children (ages 5 and 7) who were playing with a friend down the street. I was checking on them every 10-15 minutes to see how they were doing. They were only about 7 houses away, although not visible from my house because of a bend in the road, and since the weather was nice I asked that they play outside. On about my third trip around the corner I froze when I realised they were no longer playing in the same location. I did a quick sweep of the neighborhood to no avail. I walked to the park a block away and still couldn’t spot them.
I started to panic. I got that creeping sensation that started in my chest and seemed to slowly freeze every inch of my body from the inside out. My mind escaped reality and found itself in “what if land.” In “what if land” your children are not just out of sight but they are injured, hurting, kidnapped, or they’ve stolen a car and made it halfway to the border. Every parent has been to “what if” land, and no parents wants to spend much time there.
But I spend a lot of time there. Too much time. Not because I want to. Not because my children have intrinsic risk factors. In fact, my children were just fine on this day and they had just run into a neighbor’s house to grab a doll that was needed for their game. I spend a great amount of time in “what if” land for the same reason many parents do. I don’t want anything to happen to my children.
But what really happens to our children when we try to protect them from everything? From personal experience I can tell you what happens. Nothing. Meaning, they don’t get to experience things. They are bogged down by rules and regulations and we strip an essential part of childhood from them. In the vast emptiness created by wanting to protect our children, we provide them instead with nothing.
My kid couldn’t learn to ride her bike with me around because I was so paranoid she would crash. I made a rule that my other kid couldn’t do the monkey bars when I was with her. It was too hard to watch from where I stood in “what if land.” Swimming, tree climbing, and crashing through nature unsupervised were all normal parts of my own childhood, yet I find myself shielding my own kids from these same experiences.
When I recapped the story of not being able to find the girls for what was in all likelihood probably less than 10 minutes, I heard lots of the same sentiment that “things are different than they used to be.” Is that true? Did drugs, and violence, and disturbed people gain in popularity in the last 20 years? Or do we just have more access to information then we’ve ever had before? We now know within seconds when Amber Alerts are issued by an announcement to our phones. We can search in less than a minute for sex offenders who live by us on our computer. Social media provides real time updates on crisis situations. The amount of information can be helpful, but it can also be overwhelming. It can make us want to always stay in “what if land.”
When I realised I was depriving my children of play, independence, responsibility and fun because of my own anxiety over their well being, I knew I had to make a change. Something that would allow me to see through the “what ifs” and focus instead on the reality. So now I ask myself this one question when I feel the need to regulate part of their childhood.
Is it scary or is it dangerous?
Watching your child ride a bike is scary. Sending them off to walk to school without you for the first time is scary. Not knowing where they are for awhile can be scary. These things have also been happening to children for hundreds of years. Many things about being a parent are scary because there is possibility that something could happen. However, the possibility exists that something could happen regardless of if they do these things or not. My kid could fall out of a tree and break her arm. She could also trip at school and break her arm. Scary things can’t really be controlled, and maybe they shouldn’t be. Maybe the lessons children can learn from doing scary things far outweigh the security parents feel if they don’t let their kids do them.
Dangerous things put our kids at a significantly increased risk of something bad happening. Having guns unlocked around children. Not using life jackets/seat belts/carseats/ or helmets. Not knowing where your kids are long enough that they really can make it to the border. These things are dangerous. Those are the things we should focus on.
The rest is just childhood and if it isn’t inherently dangerous, as difficult as it can be (for me), we should just let the scary happen. It is part of the experience that not only our children need, but that we need just as much.