Sometime ago, I was asked to write an article for a parenting magazine on how to keep our children safe in today’s world.
I was hesitant, because through the years, I have come to realise that being safe can mean very different things for different people / parents.
What is meant by safe? What do we want our children to be safe from? From hurting themselves? From other people? How safe do we want our children to be? Is avoiding risk the same as managing risk? Will avoiding risk make them less ready for the real world?
I think these questions alone are worth a couple of essays.
I remember how my ex-neighbour held back her child when she came over to my place and saw my toddler playing with a frying pan and spatula. The ones I used for cooking, the real stuff made of metal, no less.
No, we didn’t child proof our kitchen, in fact my toddler often hangs around in the kitchen when I cooked. He had a cabinet of his own with all his cooking tools so that he could cook along with me. The old frying pan and spatula were some of those tools.
When we first became parents and lived in our apartment on the 10th floor, my parents strongly urged us to install window grilles. We have since moved multiple times, staying at various high rise buildings, but we never installed window grilles for our home.
In the last 10 years, we have relocated our home for like half a dozen times? Both local and overseas and my boys grew up tinkering with real tools helping their Dad fixed up furnitures. When my elder boy was about 3, we bought him a craft hammer from Jo-Ann. He loved it so much and carried it everywhere he goes. He knew how to use it and he learned about things that would break and those that could withstand hammering. Needless to say, we got disapproving looks from strangers and even friends who thought it was too dangerous for a preschooler to be walking around with a hammer.
No, I am not a risk taker. When it comes to the physical aspects of raising my child, I often fall into the overprotective side. In fact I come from a family where falling down is not ok and safety has to come first and children are often too young to try anything ‘dangerous’.Because of that, letting my kids do dangerous things creates natural anxiety inside of me. But thankfully, I am married to a husband who believes that it’s never too early to start teaching our children how to manage the dangers in life. And we have come a long way since the day we hiked up Schilthorn and Eiger Trail.
Recently, my neighbour found out that I allowed my boys to play with fire. She was appalled. I struggled with whether to tell her that her son has been splurging on fire crackers and sparklers at the minimart near our place and has kept them in a ‘secret’ place so that she wouldn’t find out. She would probably ban her kid from coming over to my place if she found out about the blow dart my boys made using PVC pipe.
It’s often easier to lock away dangerous tools than to let our kids experiment under our supervision. Some of us will start very early with great caution and some risk. Others will wait until the risk has diminished and they have more confidence in their children.
I find it fascinating to watch a normally active and restless kid settle down, focus intently with a tool held in hand, determine to accomplish a given task. It’s amazing how kids given freedom learn their own limits, develop a sense of safety and respect for “dangerous” tools, objects and learn to trust their intuition and instincts.
‘Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet’ noted Helen Keller. Children need to find ways to cope with difficult situations; they need to learn that they can. Building character and emotional resiliency is a lot like developing a healthy immune system. We know that our children need to be exposed to a variety of bugs and viruses in life. Not only is it impossible to avoid, but this exposure is necessary in order to build up their own protective immunological front.
The skills that we need to be successful in the world aren’t entirely learned in a classroom. The most valuable lessons are learned through experiences both good and bad. Unfortunately, fear is also a normal part of the parenting experience.
When should we let go? How do we know they are ready to do it on their own? Should we stick around to watch them?
On top of our own fears, we sometime have to deal with judgement of other parents. ‘What! you let your kids play with fire?!’ The implied judgement in statements such as this is that I am an irresponsible or negligent parent.
Our parenting instincts can work for or against us. On one hand, only through our instincts will we ever know whether they are ready or not. On the other hand, our parenting instincts, in their rawest forms will prevent us from putting our children in a position where they could possibly get hurt.
If we think we have done our part to spend time with our children, to supervise them and teach them the skills to keep them safe, we should trust our instinct, take a deep breath, let go, watch them try, strive and grow.