Risk, Fear, and Freedom: a Plea to Parents

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Children hunger for a taste of freedom. They are strongly driven to get to grips with the people, places and things around them. To figure stuff out for themselves, to learn new skills, and to build their self-confidence and their sense of what they are capable of.

Much of this figuring out, this learning, this confidence-building, happens when children are playing, exploring, experimenting, and testing themselves.

This ‘effort after mastery’ is an incredibly powerful, natural learning impulse. What is more, it kicks in right from birth, and can be seen throughout childhood. Just watch any toddler learning to walk, trying over and over to master the art of putting one foot in front of the other.

We know the value of giving children a little freedom. But as parents, we worry about what might go wrong – and about what others might think.

Balancing freedom and safety

There’s no denying that for parents, getting the balance right between freedom and safety is harder than it was. Some are so worried about things going wrong – and about being judged and found wanting by their peers – that they over-compensate and overprotect their children.

The problem is that making things too safe can starve children of the very experiences that best help them learn how to keep themselves safe and healthy. As rising numbers of children and teenagers struggle with emotional and social problems it is all the more important to get this balance right.

In the end, the only way children grow to be resilient – to be ready for the everyday challenges that life will inevitably throw at them – is by being given the freedom to learn from their own efforts, and their own mistakes.

Taking a balanced approach to risk

I’ve been making the case for a balanced approach to risk in childhood for over 20 years. And in my experience, a large proportion of parents – perhaps even the silent majority – get this.

Surely all parents want their children to be confident, capable, responsible and resilient people. And most realise that this means untying the apron strings and gradually allowing a little freedom, adventure and – yes – risk into their lives. How else can we explain the explosion in ‘Forest School’ education and childcare programmes, where even tiny children are spending hours every week exploring and playing in the woods? . . .

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