Safety First: Have We Gone Too Far?

Are We Protecting to the Point of Harming?

Feeling safe is one of our most basic needs. Experiencing threat and danger activates our evolutionary brain to protect us. In order to survive, we must see threat, and react to it. But when does that evolutionary wiring go haywire? When we over-perceive threat, and react even when there is no danger. This is a core part of significant anxiety that gets in the way of people’s lives. But it also seems to be more and more part of all of our lives as we have become surrounded by click-bait headlines and fear-based news. As parents, we are also biologically programmed to protect our children. But has this biology also gone haywire? Is it possible we are protecting to the point of harming?

Physical Safety: From Latchkey to Kidnapping

This week, my eight-year-old asked if she would be able to walk to school next year as a third grader, without me. I didn’t answer because I would probably let her walk alone this year, but my husband has a different comfort zone.

When I was ten, I started coming home alone to make myself a snack and work on homework (and maybe watch Hawaii 5-0) until both my working parents got home between 5 and 6. My mom always called to make sure I had gotten home, and that was the extent of our safety protocol (that I remember at least). I’m sure many of you have a similar comparison to your own childhoods.

Although my style is to allow children more freedom and less supervision, I will have moments of panic that maybe I’ve gone too far and a horrible accident could happen without me right next to them. The specter of tragedy and trauma absolutely shapes my behavior at times, even if it is mathematically ridiculous. For example, I recently read that in 2011, a total of nine children were kidnapped and murdered by strangers, compared to 1,140 child deaths from car accidents. But I’m still nervous when I watch my 6-year-old walk one short block to her friend’s house.

In our world of news from remote towns that would never have reached the rest of us before the expanse of the internet, it can feel like threat and danger lurk on every street corner, no matter how insulated our particular street corner seems. In reality, there are several data points showing kids are safer now than they have been for many decades.

It would be interesting to dig into the HOW behind the numbers – I’m guessing the 43% decline in car accident deaths for kids under 13 over the last decade could be at least partially due to increased awareness about car seat safety, which has resulted in me keeping my children rear-facing longer and longer with each child. It could be argued that the huge 51% decrease in abductions by strangers between 1997 and 2012 could be due to increased protectiveness by parents. Or it could be a reason completely unrelated to what we are doing as parents.

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We feel better doing all we can to protect our children. But what is it doing to our children besides (possibly) keeping them physically safer? I recently read an interesting article, The Fragile Generation, with several arguments that our increased protectiveness as parents is harming our children in some unseen but critical ways. Although the authors clearly have a "free-range parenting" bias, they make some interesting points.

Some examples from this article make clear when fears take us too far from reality: banning swings on a playground (a childhood without swinging?), restricting children under 12 from going alone to a library because of the potential danger of library furniture, warnings by the Consumer Product Safety Commission about taking care when going to the park because of the tripping hazards, rocks and tree stumps.

Of course, there are examples with more controversy. The article’s authors argue that the lack of free play is a major loss for the recent generation of kids. With the rise of structured activities after school (at least partially to have a place for kids to be except home alone) and on weekends, the image of kids playing for hours in the woods is antiquated, from another time that feels almost prehistoric.

Constant adult presence and supervision may hamper the opportunity to problem-solve, negotiate conflict, and use creativity. These skills and confidence start in childhood, evolving and maturing over time to help them as young adults to succeed in college, and as adults to thrive in the workplace.

Our physical hovering – literally walking next to them every step of the way or hopping around under a tree in case they fall – may be teaching them they need us next to them to be safe, instead of building their own confidence in navigating the world around them. Finding this balance between protecting and allowing independence can be as tricky and heart-stopping as that of a toddler climbing playground equipment. 

Emotional Safety: From Trophies to Prank Calls

When I hear from college professors the stories of parents who call to complain because their COLLEGE-AGED CHILD earned a B instead of an A, it seems as if we are stealing our children’s opportunity to build resilience (and accountability!).

What about participation trophies? Is this to make everyone feel special (and why?) or is it to shield children from experiencing failure? My daughter was devastated last year when her two closest friends won 1st and 2nd places in the Science Fair, and she earned a “nice work” note. It hurt my heart to see her so upset, but she went on to a successful talent show audition that same day, which left her feeling proud and accomplished. (This year, my daughter didn’t participate in the Science Fair but she told me everyone got participation “medals.” I promise I didn’t make a complaint, but I wonder if others did?)

I don’t need my degree to say with great certainty that friendships are key to child development. I am so happy that preschool education and kindergarten now often focus on social and emotional development above intellectual. Empathy, compassion, respect, and kindness should be hardwired into the emotional brain as early as possible.

Part of this social and emotional learning, though, requires a testing of what we can all admit are darker parts of human nature: jealousy, hurting others who hurt us, feeling powerful at the expense of others, and just plain being mean. In fourth grade, I prank-called a classmate with a taunting phone call, and promptly cried on my bed for an hour afterwards without telling anyone what I had done. By testing out being mean, I learned I didn’t like how it felt.

Of course, I advocate promoting and supporting the better parts of our human nature. The more children experience compassion and nurturing, the more resilient they can be when adversity strikes. But can we let our kids tolerate this adversity so they CAN build confidence in their resilience?

If we want to grow our kids into the adults we all say we want (responsible, independent, caring), WE have to tolerate the pain of watching pain.

I did not grow up with siblings close to my age. When my kids fight with each other, I am shocked by what they will say and do – the intensity of an emotional or physical jab. I want to dive in and stop them from treating each other like that. I have learned, though, how temporary that fix is, so I now try to remember to direct them to work it out (after much coaching over the years about how), and it actually works (sometimes).

What’s even harder, though, is when they come home in tears because of fights with friends or feeling excluded. I imagine I am not alone in how I have my own emotional response to memories of being left out, or losing friends. I know that I can’t rescue them, though, and I can best help their growth by talking it through and helping them figure out ways to deal with the problem. I know we haven’t reached the social and emotional quicksand of middle school years, but so far, my girls’ friendships have rebounded nicely (they happen to have friends with great parents – also holding back on the rescue impulse!).

Kids argue and say mean things to each other because they are human; I mean, how many adults do you know that lash out in a moment of anger? Kids especially are still learning what to do with these emotions, and the consequences of how they treat others. It is part of learning and growing up to be mean and to experience meanness. To be clear: being mean here and there is different than a pattern of mean behaviors, a la Mean Girls.

As much as we have a biological drive to protect our children, there are times we need to fight that instinct and just stay still to observe. If we step in every time they face failure or rejection, we may be hurting more than helping. If we want to grow our kids into the adults we all say we want (responsible, independent, caring), WE have to tolerate the pain of watching pain. They will get through it – first with us, and then without us.

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