On the one hand, it’s a parent’s job to protect a child from harm. On the other hand, children need to independently explore their world in order to understand their world. If we over-protect, we limit their ability to learn, we may teach them to be timid and fearful, and we may actually put them at greater risk. “If we round every corner, and eliminate every pokey bit, then the first time that kids come in contact with anything not made of round plastic, they’ll hurt themselves.”(Ted Talk by Gever Tulley)
If we allow them to take small, manageable risks with us there to supervise and coach them through, they learn more about life, they tend to feel bold and empowered, and they’ll have an internal sense of when a situation carries a potential risk and will know they need to be more cautious to stay safe.
Differentiating level of risk
When deciding about safety issues, what needs to be child-proofed, and what boundaries to set, think about the level of possible risk involved.
If the situation could turn from safe to life-threatening in one unsupervised moment (what I call “red light” issues), then you need to either remove the hazards (e.g. don’t leave poisonous items or guns out), block them off (e.g. fences around swimming pools, window locks that prevent the second-story window from opening all the way) or closely supervise the child at all times (e.g. if your child is playing with a ball in a park near a busy road). Rules about these sorts of situations should be clearly explained, non-negotiable and followed every time.
If the situation could cause a significant injury, that’s what I call an orange light. When a child is around these situations (like a campfire or the sharp knives in the kitchen), you model safe behavior for the child, you talk to them about the need for caution, and when the time is right, you teach them how to interact with those things safely. You do not leave your child unsupervised.
If a situation has some risk, but really the worst that can happen is minor damage to person (bump or bruise) or property (mess that needs to be cleaned up or non-valuable item broken), then consider whether this situation needs to be child-proofed or left as a low-risk learning experience.
Darel Hammond, CEO of KaBOOM! says “There’s a difference between an accident and an injury. Accidents happen – kids fall and skin their knees… And as tragic as it is in that moment, it’s through that experience that they’re learning perseverance, they’re learning determination. They dust themselves off and go try something again and they can overcome it.”
Or, as Tom Mullarkey, Chief Executive, Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents said “We must try to make life as safe as necessary. Not as safe as possible.”
Learn more about levels of safety / risk and how to teach safety skills to kids here.
Kid’s Favorite Risky Behaviors
No matter what we do to safety-proof, “Kids are always going to figure out how to do the most dangerous thing they can.” (Gever Tulley) Ellen Sandseter has developed these categories of risky play that seem to especially appeal to kids in play.
- Great heights: Climbing trees, furniture, anything else to get that “king of the mountain” thrill.
- Rapid speeds: Swings, merry-go-rounds, slides, bikes, roller coasters. Anything fast.
- Dangerous tools and dangerous elements: Fire, hammers, knives, guns, power tools, chemicals.
- Rough and tumble: Wrestling, play-fighting, chasing, pushing, pinching.
- Disappearing / getting lost: Games like peek-a-boo, then hide and seek fulfill some of this desire, but there’s also little ones trying to wander outside their boundaries, older kids staying out past curfew.
For each, the child has a sense of possible risk, and feeling just barely in control, but managing to stay in control through that challenge. This gives a thrill, and also a sense of power and competence.
Children with a more passive temperament want these risks, but if they don’t have them, they may give up. For example, if the “safe” playgrounds in the neighborhood no longer offer a thrill to an eight year old, she may just choose to stay inside and play video games for a vicarious thrill. (Some people have argued that part of the American obesity epidemic in kids is due to their parents keeping them inside where it’s safe, and them not being physically challenged when they do leave the house.)
But other kids can’t resist their inner thrill seeker. If they don’t have approved opportunities in their environment that “push these buttons” then they will find a way to make them happen. Some of their inventions may be much riskier than we would wish. (A friend told a story from his teens of how he and his friends had filled a trash bag with some flammable gas, then lit it on fire. His line was “The first time we did it, it blew all the windows out of the garage.” The women who heard this story all said incredulously “the first time?? That means you did it more than once??” The men in the group all said “Well, yeah – the windows were already gone – nothing left to damage by doing it again.”) You may want to start thinking now about how to offer options for positive risk-taking for your child…
As a parent of a young one, think about each of these categories of risks that kids seek, and consider whether you are offering your child access to these thrills in a safe, controlled environment where you can coach them as needed to learn new skills for how to do it well. Have you let your child climb to a “great height” this week – the big slide at the playground? A good climbing tree? A steep hill on a trail? Have they experienced great speeds – riding in a bike trailer? Being pushed high on a swing? Spinning in an office chair? “Dangerous tools” at this age is about using tools they see mommy or daddy using – a metal fork instead of a soft plastic spoon? A table knife to cut a banana with? The TV remote? For rough-and-tumble, toddlers love wrestling, or holding hands between parents and being swung up high in the air, or chase games. For “getting lost”, nothing beats hide and seek. They may also like getting a long distance away from you – when you’re outdoors in a place where it’s safe to do so, give them some space.
Benefits of Risky Play
It’s easy to look at risky play and think of it as “stupid.” Why do children do risky things, even when they “know better”? (One of my favorite lines was from a group of middle school boys after an accident led to a broken arm for one: the principal asked them why they did something – “didn’t you realize someone could get hurt??” They shuffled their feet a little, looked at the wall, and eventually said “well, yeah, of course. We just didn’t think anyone would get hurt that badly.”)
There’s clearly an evolutionary benefit to play, since young animals of every species learn by playing, and often by playing in rough and tumble ways that can lead to injury. What are the benefits?
- Learning skills they’ll need as an adult: At some point, kids need to learn to use dangerous tools.
- Persistence / overcoming challenges: “Risk teaches children how to fail and try again, test their limits and boundaries, become resilient and acquire coping skills” (Hammond)
- Responsibility: “Childhood is the time when children take more responsibility for themselves, for their safety and for their actions. We actually do children a dis-service by trying to eliminate risk from their lives as they grow up. It’s a good thing for children to be exposed to the possibility that things might go wrong because that’s how they learn to cope with challenges.” Tom Gill, author of No Fear.
- Emotion regulation: It helps children “regulate fear and anger… youngsters dose themselves with manageable quantities of fear and practice keeping their head while experiencing fear. In rough and tumble play, they may experience anger, but to continue the fun, they must overcome it.” (Gray)
Questions to Ask Yourself
If you have young children at home, you are, of course, going to safety-proof all the potentially life-threatening risks. You will, or course, teach your child safety skills that help reduce injuries.
But can you also view risk as a learning opportunity? Can you sit back and let your child experience a few bumps and bruises as they explore their world? Can you tolerate some messiness in your life, and occasional damage to your possessions if it allows your child to discover new ideas and new skills?
Recommended for more info:
Read: Risky Play – Why Children Love It and Need It, Peter Gray in Psychology Today. www.psychologytoday.com/blog/freedom-learn/201404/risky-play-why-children-love-it-and-need-it
Read: The Overprotected Kid by Hanna Rosin. The Atlantic, March 2014.
(It’s a long article. If you’d prefer to listen to an interview with the author that covers the same ground, go to www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/parents-let-kids-take-risks/)
Read: Can a Playground be too safe? By John Tierney. www.nytimes.com/2011/07/19/science/19tierney.html
Watch: The Benefits of Risk in Children’s Play www.youtube.com/watch?v=XRn1a82tdHM and
Ted Talk by Gever Tulley: 5 Dangerous Things You should Let Your Kids Do. www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pn_awAPYlGc
Listen to: The Land by Erin Davis: www.prx.org/pieces/100288-of-kith-and-kids#description
On Facebook, like: Play Free Movie – they post lots of great links on these topics!