Why and How to Let Your Child Take Risks and Explore.
By: Jackie Santillan
What’s the riskiest thing you’d let your child do? Are they allowed to walk down the street to a friend’s house alone? Are they allowed to chop their own fruit? Would you let them use a hammer and nails? Can they climb trees without you standing below them?
These days, parents are more careful than ever with their kids. Move out of the way, helicopter parents. Lawnmower parents are here now; mowing down obstacles and clearing a path for their children to move effortlessly throughout the world. And while their (our) intentions are good, some level of risk and exploration are necessary for our kids’ growth.
To be honest, this is an area with which I am constantly struggling. I have; in the past, called myself the Queen Mother of Anxiety, and that title definitely extends to this subject. I understand why I should work on it; and if you’ll allow it, I'd love to share what I’ve worked through already. It’ll be an experiment in the anxious leading the anxious.
There are lots of reasons that parents might be feeling more worry than previous generations did with their kids. We are having kids later in life and having fewer of them. So, in a sense, our children are “less replaceable” than they were in years past. Of course, no child is replaceable, but if you are the parent of an only child, it may feel more necessary to protect them even in just a biological sense. And if you had that child after years of fertility struggles, you know how difficult it would be to have another if anything happened- again, biologically.
In addition, more people have some form of anxiety disorder than have ever been previously diagnosed. If you are anxious in general, it is very likely that you will be nervous about your child’s safety (and potentially pass anxiety onto them). On top of all this, with a pandemic keeping many of us sheltered in our homes for 2 years, we are all just trying to reacquaint ourselves with the public and the outdoors. We’ve grown accustomed to our children learning and entertaining themselves via screen, and it seems like an okay option for the most part; a safe option.
But (and this is a big butt like mine) trying new things is important for our kids’ development. Here are some things that can be improved by letting our kids take measured risks:
- It translates to success in other areas of their lives. In the same way that learning to play the piano means you’ll probably be able to: play another instrument, understand some Italian words, learn fractions and math concepts, and develop hand/eye/foot coordination; exposing our bodies to new physical tasks can lead to mastery of skills that we might not expect.
- Allowing kids to experience things physically will build more schema than letting them see things on a screen. Taking a child on a hike will let them use all of their senses to experience nature. They can hear the leaves crackling, the water flowing, and the birds chirping. They can smell the dirt, the flowers, and the scent of decaying logs. They might taste a raindrop, their sweat, or a blackberry (as long as you’re sure it's a blackberry). They could touch a dandelion, scrape their knee, or prick their finger on a thorn. And the sights! Don’t get me started. There is no way that Blippi can give them the same amount of knowledge they will get in 5 minutes of being outside. This is not to say I am anti-screentime. Please trust that tablet time is something with which I am 100% on board.
- Fresh air and exercise is good for your mental and physical health. Our hearts and muscles thrive on movement. Additionally, our brains release the natural “feel-good” chemicals, endorphins, when we exercise. So, if you have a child who tends to be on the anxious side, getting outside and exploring could do wonders to ease their minds. It could also help to prevent anxiety and depression disorders as your child gets older and provide them with a method of emotionally regulating when needed.
- Trying new or challenging things can help build your child’s self-esteem. They will realize they are capable of doing things they might not have thought possible, and their confidence levels will soar. They’ll also start to have a decreased reliance on parent assistance- which is great! After all, we are trying to raise them to live on their own one day. I can remember times I crossed a river by choosing a path atop slippery rocks, and the pride coursing through my veins when I made it to the other side. Although I don’t consider myself athletic by any standard, things like that assure me that I can do challenging things if necessary.
- Being without their “creature comforts” can help to increase their problem solving skills. At home, if you’re hot, you turn on a ceiling fan or splash some cool water on your face, but out in the wild you won’t have those options. Your child may discover that sitting in the shade, fanning themselves with leaves, or finding a windy spot might help with the same problem. And let’s not forget about the biggest creature comfort: the tablet or screen. I think we are beyond blessed to live in a time where we have entertainment at our fingertips; and for our neurodivergent kids, focusing on a show for few minutes to decrease over-stimulation is so helpful. I think there is no question, though, that giving your child more opportunities to use their brains to entertain themselves will enhance their creativity.
- One of the best parts of taking your kids outside and letting them go wild is that it lets their bodies do exactly what they want to do. Everywhere else there are rules and expectations telling them to be quiet, sit still, and walk instead of running. Outside, they can climb, run, wiggle, jump- the world is their jungle gym.
Surely, we can agree that letting our kids get out and try new things without our constant interference is valuable for them. But how in the heck are we supposed to just abandon our fears and do it? Well, it’s not easy, but I’ll share some of the ways I’ve been working on this myself.
First, I have tried to start small. Maybe I’m not ready to sit on a bench and let my child roam the entire park without me, but I might be okay with sitting on a bench and letting him stay on one specific playground structure. That’s progress! I used to stand directly beneath my son anytime he climbed anything. I used to be at the bottom of every slide awaiting his arrival. I’m inching away, and trying to give him space to grow and improve his skills. Once I see that he is able to do one thing, I’m more likely to believe he’ll be able to do another. We are both building our confidence by letting him attempt new things.
Another thing I’ve done, and this one is scary, is take a few minutes to remember some of the risky things I did as a child. When I think back on the things I can remember, it is bananas that I am as alive as I am. Kids are resilient in both the mental and physical realm and the more opportunities we give their brains and bodies to practice, fail, and try again; the more those muscles (and okay the brain is an organ but still) will grow and become competent.
I’ve tried to stop saying “be careful.” This one is TOUGH. It just jumps right out of my mouth sometimes. Saying “be careful” to our kids when they try new things can cause them to be unnecessarily anxious and even lead to them hurting themselves because they doubt their abilities. They may also tune you out when you say “be careful” over and over because essentially it’s a meaningless phrase. Here are some things you can say instead:
- Listen to your body. Does it feel balanced?
- Face forward when you are running.
- Look ahead!
- Do you notice that wasp nest/car coming?
- Where will you put your foot next?
- What’s your plan for getting back down?
- Three points of contact! (Explain this one ahead of time: always keep two hands and one foot or two feet and one hand on the item they are climbing.)
And lastly, I try to remind myself that I won’t always be here to keep him safe. It’s such a hard thing to think about; and honestly my ghost will be following my child around even when I’m not here, but the purpose of parenting is to raise kids that will be able to survive without our help. I am not in the business of “toughening up” kids or trying to push my son away before he’s ready. I hope he knows that he can come to me and ask for help with anything any time, but I also don’t want to be the reason he isn’t making progress. I don’t want to hold him back from reaching his potential in any area.
If you’re looking for some activities to try to get your child in “explore mode,” here are some ideas. Of course, choose the ones that are suitable for your child’s age and abilities.
- Take a hike: let your kids lead the way. Climb trees, ford rivers, notice animals and bugs, and collect leaves and other items. Talk about nature and how important it is to preserve.
- Give your child real wood and real tools to build something. If that’s too age-advanced, try giving them recycled items and different types of adhesives: glue, glue sticks, and tape. Building something without directions is the ultimate problem solving brain booster.
- Put items into a balloon, fill it with water, freeze it, and let your kids come up with different ways to access the items. Will they let it melt in the sun, throw it on the ground, chip away with a tool, or run water over it? Try to let them come up with their own ideas before sharing.
- Create a bug habitat and keep some bugs in it for a few days before saying goodbye. Think about the things a bug needs to live. A great choice for this activity is a snail if you have them around. You can put leaves, twigs, rocks, grass, and dirt inside. Add a damp paper towel for water, and most types of fruits and vegetables for food.
- Let them climb on a piece of playground equipment or another surface without standing right beside them. Say some “be careful” alternatives if you need to and only help when asked.
- Tell them that lunch is on their own today. Put dangerous items out of reach, but let them pick and choose what they want to eat, make the plate, and sit where they want.
- Have a pretend “blackout” at home. You could even flip some breakers to get the point across that there is no power for a certain period of time. What will your child do with no lights, no screens, and no internet?
- Go backyard camping. Set up a tent and have a fire. Bonus points if you make s’mores! Heck, you could even go real camping.
Letting our kids take measured risks can feel like a scary prospect, but if we take small steps to trust them, we’ll see big gains for our kids in their mental health, physical ability, and confidence. The best way to start is just to start. Commit to the process and see where it takes you and your kids.