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.
Oh yeah, I’ve been to “what if” land. In fact, I called the cops. They were real nice when they took my “missing” 2 year old out of his brother’s bed, happily asleep. Sigh.
It’s a learning curve for both the child and the parent. I can’t remember how many times as a child I would tell my dad “I’ll be fine, I’m not going to do anything stupid. You taught me better than that.” That was the key, I was taught the lessons he could teach me. I knew, for the most part, what could be dangerous. I also knew that if I was doing anything scary, that I needed to reassure him it would be ok. That being said, there were always other life lessons I had to learn the hard way, no matter how much he protected me with his teachings.
I get the same heart palpitations, even when it comes to letting my children explore unfamiliar social situations. (As mothers, I think we’re wired for it!) But there’s a great book called Free Range Kids that helped me to defuse some of my paranoia.I agree with you that it’s good to let them encounter the world on their own, bit by bit….
Thank you again for a heart-wrenching and honest post. I’m all for trusting my girls and having them experience their world; I just hate the fear I have of the world for them. Hopefully I will be able to continue to let them go, little by little so that they can learn how to navigate their world with grace and confidence learning from my words and their mistakes.
wonderful post! i realized (after my husband patiently explained it to me over the course of years) that i was passing along my worry to my kids so much that they became anxious to try anything new. i still struggle with that and look to perspectives like http://www.fiftydangerousthings.com/ to help me understand how to evaluate things with a more open mind.
You can make it to the border in less than 2 hours where I am so……
That in no way negates what you are saying here but it is something I constantly struggle with myself, I want to give her enough freedom to have a childhood, to face trouble and come out victorious…..I still remember with pride the danger I outsmarted as a kid but at the same time I couldn’t ever ever live with myself if something happened to her.
The thing is we can say stranger kidnapping are rare but they are rare because children are smarter than we give them credit for, I can remember many times as I was a kid approached by strange men trying to lure me closer or trying to distract me with talk as they moved closer but my instinctive sense of danger always kicked in and I survived even if I ended up lost because i ran too damn far
I had that knowledge bred into me honed by a life without a parent who could even pretend to care where I was and what I was doing and i don’t want the same for my daughter, I am sorry but I don’t want my daughter to be alone somewhere with a creepy dude creeping closer and closer knowing all the many things he could be at that very moment plotting not understanding it fully but scared all the same wondering if it is better to attack or if she has a chance at escape. I don’t want her to feel that crippling fear , that knowledge that she is on her own and if she makes a wrong move only pain and torment await…that’s it, game over.
I do not care about statistics because I lived , breathed it and survived it and what I faced day after day shows up on no stupid poll or research ……. I do not want the same for her, I may have made it out in one piece but I have my scars and I do not believe I am alone.
I am proud of what I came through, I am proud I survived but I did so because I knew at a very young age how black a soul could be and I cannot for the life of me bring myself to imprint that on my innocent child and I know that without that information confronted with the same as me she would not make it for how could she know the guy offering her a piece of chocolate plans to rape ,torture and kill her unless I tell her and I simply cant and so I will have to stand guard until I figure it out….7 houses down, I went flip crazy when mine went into the downstairs neighbors house without telling me…as in she knows that she will never ever do such a thing again …period…because yes “what if”
Like i said I struggle but I also hold my breath and force a smile as she mounts those monkey bars forcing myself to sit still and not move to to stand guard under her, I sit still as she learns to climb a rock wall not designed for climbing and I force a smile when she tell me she is going to jump from the top trying vainly not to show the panic I have at the thought of what could happen…phone at the ready and 911 ready to go she leaps and lands hard a little startled that her ankle is sore and it was quite that hard of a landing….I talk with her a little and tell her how you never should try to land on your feet when your high because you could break a ankle,I teach her to place her arms to protect her face and head and how to roll as she lands feet to body and side to side.
I do not judge because we all have our past experiences and we all know our weakness, mine is letting mine outside my sight unless she is with a adult i know is just as paranoid as I am , yours may be letting yours take risks in front of you…. but its all good as we try to navigate this parenting world.
I tend to ramble when in written form but I had to say in closing that as I try to improve I one day i let my daughter run ahead of me as we headed home like many times before and she round a corner about a minute ahead of me ….a minute tops but as I rounded the corner I was confronted with the sight of a man one hand gripping my child’s shirt , the other gripping her arm as he spoke in a low voice to her….it tears me even now 6 months later to think of what could have been and while I am beginning to lesson the reins again so to speak again recently that experience will live forever in my mind as ” what if”