3 Keys to Balancing Safety & Risk in Parenting

In today’s world, there is always a new trend of some type that catches the attention.
With all these different trends and changes in society, parenting has been no exception to this rule. How do parents balance safety with risk when raising children? With so many factors involved, it can be difficult on both ends for parents as well as kids often times being left feeling disempowered or anxious about their family dynamic. These are three key things to keep in mind when balancing safety & risk in your own life: positivity vs negativity; self-care; and mindset

The “my child keeps doing dangerous things” is a common concern for parents. There are 3 keys to balancing safety and risk in parenting. These 3 keys are: set limits, teach your kids about the risks, and maintain healthy boundaries.

We’ve looked at the roots of overprotective parenting, debated whether the world is more hazardous today than it was many decades ago (it isn’t), and dug into the dangers that occur when we don’t let our children to do risky things in this series (there are many).

Today, we’ll wrap up the series by talking about how parents can strike a balance in raising their children by giving them enough risk exposure to foster the development of the skills, confidence, and courage they’ll need to grow into well-rounded, flourishing adults while still prioritizing their safety and well-being.

It’s a difficult line to walk, but it can be done.

The Three Keys to Raising Your Children While Balancing Safety and Risk

The key to establishing a “golden mean” between safety and danger boils down to this: instead of protecting children from risk, you educate them how to deal with it.

To do so, you must balance three factors: 1) exposing your children to regulated danger, 2) preparing your children for risk rather than completely avoiding it, and 3) keeping a “free range” parenting philosophy.

Let’s have a look at how to manage each of these dynamics one by one.

1. Create a risk-controlled environment

Ellen Sandseter argues in her research on the function of risk in infancy that exposure to danger is critical for children’s development, as it “inoculates” them against excessive fear and fosters the sort of resilience that enables them to live and flourish into adulthood.

She does point out, however, that youngsters do not need to be exposed to significant hazards in order to reap these advantages; they only need to engage in activities that seem risky.

This implies that, rather of going to extremes — removing all risk or pushing children into circumstances that might bring them genuine pain or harm — parents should choose a medium ground by encouraging their children to take regulated risks.

In order to assess and manage events in a way that allows for managed risk, parents must first ask themselves a few questions:

  • Is this a danger that my youngster can recognize on his own?
  • Is this a danger that might result in significant damage to him or her (death, paralysis, or a brain injury)?
  • Is this a risk worth taking that might lead to a beneficial learning experience?

The answers to these questions may then be used to determine a risk-to-safety ratio:

  • If a risk is one that children cannot (at least at first) predict on their own, make sure they are aware of the potential risks. Teach children how to recognize and respond to these threats so that they can predict and control them in the future. Allow your children to cross the street on their own, but instruct them to look both ways beforehand.
  • If a kid is too young to foresee and grasp a major danger, even with training, remove it from their surroundings, while leaving hazards that would only cause little injury (bumps, scrapes) and would encourage learning in their place. For example, instead of allowing your small kid to play at the brink of a cliff, let them to climb on and leap from large rocks farther away.
  • Keep your kids away from hazards that, even if they can predict them, nonetheless have a high potential of inflicting severe injury and don’t provide a major learning opportunity in exchange. For example, don’t allow your youngster leap from the house’s roof; the fact that it’s not a smart idea may be communicated orally without them having to learn through their mistakes.
  • Allow your children to take risks that have a small probability of causing major injury but will provide them with a meaningful learning experience. Allow your child to explore the neighborhood alone; this entails a negligible danger of kidnapping (which can be avoided — see below), but it provides an invaluable opportunity for autonomy development.

As you can see, maintaining a risk-controlled environment for your children boils down to removing hazards that they can’t manage on their own and teaching them how to manage those that they can. We’ll go through how to achieve the latter in more detail next.

 

2. Rather than total protection, aim for complete preparation.

When parents are too protective of their children, they effectively take up risk management for their children. The underlying assumption is that mom and dad will always be there to protect them, but this will not always be the case (hopefully).

Rather of relying on you to keep your children safe, teach them how to confront and handle hazards on their own. This doesn’t imply rushing kids into things without a safety net, but rather using a “scaffolding” of “planning, practicing by phases, and taking necessary measures,” as Gever Tulley puts it. The strength of this scaffolding should be tailored to your children’s age and maturity level, and then gradually reduced as they develop confidence and competence and become self-sufficient.

Here are some tips for participating in this process in a manner that not only benefits your children but also helps you relax: 

Risk should be introduced in stages. The first step in enabling your children to participate in a “risky” activity is to determine the dangers. What makes you nervous about allowing your children to participate in a certain activity? How genuine are these dangers and concerns?

Once you’ve identified the risks associated with a particular activity, you can figure out how to mitigate them and alleviate your concerns in ways that are 1) proportional to the risk, 2) maintain the feeling of risk (excitement, thrill, or fear), and 3) increase your child’s competence and autonomy.

In her book Free Range Kids, Lenore Skenazy proposes what is perhaps the greatest approach to achieve all three goals: introduce it in graduated stages, teaching your child about any inherent hazards in an activity before gradually reducing your guiding and monitoring. Here are some samples of how this may look:

Getting across the street:

  1. Cross the street holding your child’s hand and discussing the need of looking both ways and keeping an eye out for automobiles.
  2. Cross the street without holding hands with your youngster, but continue to walk side by side.
  3. While you stand on the curb, watch your toddler cross the street on his own.
  4. When you’re not around, let your toddler cross the street on his own.

To get to the bus stop on foot:

  1. Take a couple walks with your youngster to the bus stop, pointing out any potential concerns from traffic or otherwise.
  2. Walk with your kid halfway to the bus stop and then watch her walk the rest of the way.
  3. Allow her to go the whole distance without your supervision.

Bike riding in the neighborhood:

  1. Allow your youngster to go for a solo bike ride around the block and then return.
  2. Allow your youngster to ride his bike for 10 minutes and then return.
  3. Allow your youngster to ride his bike for as long as he wants.

vintage dad helping boy climb tree

Say “pay attention” instead of “be cautious.” Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods gave me this fantastic suggestion. Saying “be careful” all the time depicts the world as a risky, unduly scary place, and instills a cautious attitude in children. Pay attention (or “watch what you’re doing”), on the other hand, promotes youngsters to be more aware of their bodies and surroundings – an attitude we want our children to develop whether they’re doing harmful activities or not.

 

The world needs more clever, insightful, and bold youngsters, not more cautious ones.

Treat your children as though they were apprentices. Children spending the most of their time in close proximity to their parents is not a new phenomena. Children used to spend entire days with their parents before the industrial revolution. Parents and children used to collaborate, while today they are passive observers — picture-taking recess monitors — of their children’s activity. The kids were gaining the skills and information they’d need to succeed as adults in an informal (and occasionally official) apprenticeship with these adults.

It’s past time to revive the apprenticeship model. Spending a lot of time with your kids isn’t always a bad thing — in fact, it may be helpful — but that time can be put to better use (both for you and for them). Most parents can’t or don’t want to take their children to work every day, but you’re probably already spending the majority of your off-hours with them; rather than giving up hobbies and doing chores after the kids go to bed, use these hours to engage in such activities, allowing your children to tag along and learn more about your hobbies and some practical skills.

Take your children trekking with you and educate them about the risks and pleasures of the wild. Lift weights with them and teach them perfect form while instilling a passion for exercise. Allow children to assist you in raking leaves or preparing supper (including, gasp!, using a sharp knife), even if their “assistance” is first little if not damaging to your efforts.

Treating your children as apprentices will help you to become a more hands-off parent while still teaching them vital life skills. I’ve wondered if overprotective parenting, by becoming so all-consuming to the point of neglecting any outside/adult interests, hasn’t created its own cycle of hyper-interaction and dependence, in which children not only become reliant on their parents, but parents become reliant on their children as the only friends and interest in their lives. As a consequence, parents may unconsciously intensify and prolong their attempts to keep their children near – even after they’ve reached the age when they may start striking out on their own — out of concern that their own lives would be empty once their children grow independent and depart.

So, mom and dad, obtain some hobbies and interests and show your kids, and yourself, that you’re fully grown human beings outside of your parental duty.

Intervene in children’s squabbles and activities as little as possible. One of the negative consequences of overprotective parenting is that mom and dad are now always there to arbitrate the many arguments that emerge between children during play. “Tyler isn’t sharing the football with you, Dad!” “OK, Tyler, you’ve held the football long enough; please give it to Henry now,” Dad says.

Unstructured play is important to child development in part because children must learn to negotiate and compromise. Of course, parents can teach them good give-and-take principles, but unless they practice them on their own, they’ll grow up believing that whenever they’re harmed or wronged by someone else, they’re a victim whose only recourse is to seek help from a third party (the consequences of this dynamic are evident in today’s culture). If you see youngsters having a disagreement, try to stay away from them and let them figure it out on their own; better yet, stay away from their play and negotiating zone entirely.

 

A same logic applies to your supervision of youngsters who are engaged in “hazardous” DIY projects on their own. You should definitely monitor your child’s first adventures with handling tools, constructing things, and so on as part of introducing risk in graded stages and enabling your youngster to be an apprentice. However, you should back off as quickly as possible, allowing them to figure things out on their own and only intervening if they’re physically unable to do so or are in urgent danger. “Try behaving like a robot that just performs what you’re taught,” Tulley suggests. Allow them to fail by becoming the huge, strong, or dexterous hands they need. Then, even if it means beginning again, assist them in figuring out why they failed and how to overcome it.” vintage girl talking to neighbor woman don't talk to strangers

Take a new way to teaching your children to cope with “stranger danger” (beginning with removing the term “stranger danger” from your vocabulary). We’ve all been going about it the wrong way when it comes to lowering the already miniscule possibility of every parent’s worst nightmare – child abduction.

According to Ernie Allen, the director of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, part of his job is to “debunk the idea of stranger danger” in order to educate youngsters a more logical, productive, proactive, and, in fact, safer approach to interact with strangers.

The only thing we usually educate kids about strangers is that they should never, ever speak to them. However, as Allen points out, this blanket ban “essentially remove[s] hundreds of excellent individuals in the neighborhood who might be assisting them.” Allen, on the other hand, educates youngsters, according to Skenazy:

1. The majority of adults are decent. 2. There are a few of duds. 3. Most normal individuals do not approach and ask for assistance. 4. If they do, or if they harass you in any other manner, you may seek assistance from any other adult in the vicinity.

“Never wander off with strangers” is a better phrase to educate youngsters than “Never speak to strangers.”

Then you go on to explain what it implies. Tell youngsters to avoid any temptations a predator may use to get them into the vehicle, such as chocolates or an empty leash ostensibly belonging to the dog he’s hunting for. Tell them not to go with a stranger, even if he says something kind, asks for assistance, or claims that their parents sent him to pick them up. Also, instruct children to make a fuss and flee if someone attempts to harm them.

When a predator attempted to take a youngster but failed, the children got away “overwhelmingly, by either running away or fighting back: shouting, kicking, pushing away, or drawing attention,” according to Allen. As a result, he teaches and has youngsters practice the following skills to lessen their risks of being kidnapped:

1. Making a stop sign with their hands in front of them. “No!” they scream at the top of their voices. Get out of here! “You aren’t my father!” 3. Run as fast as you can.

 

Instilling this perspective and providing children with this training allows them to concentrate on risk rather than globalizing it to everyone, everywhere, and enables them to navigate the world and their relationships with others with more confidence. Perhaps more crucially, preemptive planning helps parents to feel more comfortable allowing their children to go beyond the limits of the backyard.

3. Keep a “Free Range” Parenting Attitude

It’s one thing to understand how to strike a balance between danger and safety in your children’s life; it’s another to consistently put these concepts into action. It’s all too easy to allow your gut dread of anything horrible occurring to your children (however unjustified) disrupt your attempts to let them grow up “free range.” It will assist if you keep the following mentality elements in mind:

Make it a cornerstone of your parenting approach. Allowing your children more freedom won’t happen if you simply think about it and go with the flow; as Tim Gill points out in his book No Fear, “There are huge factors pulling parents, professionals, and volunteer and community organisations towards risk aversion.” It is because they have a clear philosophy, ethos, or set of principles regarding the role of risk, experiential learning, and autonomy in children’s life that they are able to resist these influences.”

In today’s cautious world, if you want to raise “free range” kids, you’ll need to sincerely believe in the benefits of doing so and make that conviction essential to your parenting philosophy.

Keep the statistics on kid safety in mind. People often claim that data has no bearing on fear since statistics are based on logic, but fear is frequently not. It’s true that people mistakenly assume the world has become more dangerous when it hasn’t, and that the chance of a child being stolen has increased when it hasn’t. These phobias do really dwell in the lower, “reptilian” portions of our brains, rather than our higher abilities. But I can honestly tell that realizing that I’d have to leave my kids outdoors unattended for 750,000 years for them to be taken statistically has made it easier for me to relax my previously strict style of surveillance.

Remember that not only does your child have a 40X higher chance of dying as a passenger in a vehicle than being abducted or murdered by a stranger, but that half of children who are hit by automobiles near schools are struck by the same parents who drop them off!

Statistics won’t heal your fear, but they will help to ease it when the 24/7 news cycle makes kid tragedy appear much more prevalent and common than it really is; it’s OK to worry, but keep it in proportion to the threat.

 

Keep things in perspective by using history. Children, even very young ones, toiled 12 hours a day in mines and factories and sold newspapers on filthy street corners in the early twentieth century. There’s nothing romantic about child labor; unlike today’s primarily imagined concerns, such job posed a genuine threat to children. However, looking back in time may help you recognize that youngsters are capable of considerably more autonomy, danger, and responsibility than we now allow.

Jack London joined a schooner going for the Bering Sea to go seal hunting when he was seventeen years old.

Andrew Jackson worked as a courier for American militias fighting in the Revolutionary War when he was thirteen years old.

Louis Zamperini fled home when he was twelve years old to spend the summer on an Indian reserve and ran through the mountains; he shared a hut with a buddy his age and killed his own meal each night with a gun.

Our kids can ride their bikes to school if these youngsters can cruise the seas, serve on the front lines, and live independently.

Watch out for the vulnerability cycle (and turn it into an autonomy cycle). The overprotective parenting cycle works like this: parents believe their children are vulnerable and incapable of fending for themselves, therefore they treat them as such. As a consequence, the children lack the necessary coping abilities to cope with danger and failures, and they seem weak. This show of fragility justifies further parental surveillance and involvement, thus preventing children from experiencing independence and danger firsthand. As a result, they are more susceptible. And so it continues in a downward spiral.

If you think your kids are helpless and reliant on you, it’s probably because of your constant supervision.

Fortunately, you can reverse the cycle: the more capable and competent you believe your children are, the more autonomy you will give them; and the more autonomy you give them, the more capable and competent they will become.

Listen to my “free range” parenting podcast with Lenore Skenazy:

 

Trust the Odds; Trust Yourself; Trust Your Kid is the conclusion of the series.

The notion of “planned obsolescence” may be awful for your refrigerator, but it’s a fantastic way to think about parenting. The need for your supervision, direction, and protection should be temporary, diminishing as children get older and mature; our duty as parents should be to equip our children to live and flourish in the absence of us.

We disturb this crucial process of children becoming autonomous and progressively detaching from our care when we parent too closely, too obsessively.

It’s undeniably difficult to facilitate this progressive transfer of authority and to figure out precisely how hands-on and hands-off to be. As parents, our strongest instinct is to shield our children from the anguish of every hurt and failure. It’s difficult to set aside their present dread and believe that a little risk and discomfort is in their best interests in the long run.

 

As I said at the outset of this series, finding the right balance between danger and safety has been difficult for me. But doing the research and writing it has truly helped me shift my perspective. I hope it has had the same effect on you.

Finding a healthy middle ground in parenting boils down to three principles: trust the odds, trust yourself, and trust your child.

Trust the odds: Your child’s chances of experiencing anything really terrible are quite slim. On the other hand, in the absence of any danger, there is a 100% likelihood that their development would decline.

Trust yourself: You can teach your children how to manage danger confidently, skillfully, and safely.

Trust your child: Children are capable of much more than we realize. Their tenacity will astound you on a regular basis. But not if you don’t give it the opportunity to shine.

Read Throughout the Series

Overprotective Parenting’s Origins Is the World a Riskier Place for Kids Now Than It Was Before? The Consequences of Not Allowing Your Children to Do Dangerous Activities Three Keys to Raising Your Children While Balancing Safety and Risk

Overprotective Parenting’s Origins Is the World a Riskier Place for Kids Now Than It Was Before? The Consequences of Not Allowing Your Children to Do Dangerous Activities Three Keys to Raising Your Children While Balancing Safety and Risk

Sources

Lenore Skenazy’s book Free Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts With Worry)

Tim Gill’s book No Fear: Growing Up in a Risk-Averse Society is about growing up in a risk-averse society.

Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder

Scott D. Sampson’s How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love With Nature

Gever Tulley and Julie Spiegler’s 50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do)

Hanna Rosin’s “The Overprotected Kid”

 

 

The “the world is less safe today than it used to be” is a statement that many parents are facing. There are 3 keys for balancing safety and risk in parenting:
1) Keep your child safe from harm, 2) Let them learn about the risks of the world, 3) Teach them how to protect themselves.

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