Recently a client expressed a great deal of anxiety about her husband’s parenting.
“He just lets them … do things,” she complained. When I asked, she described climbing on walls and trees, playing with sticks as if they were swordfighting, and a couple of other situations with the potential for risk.
She envisioned, as many parents do, the many things that could go wrong with any of these activities. Falls, broken bones, scrapes, poked eyes, and more populated her imagination.
Her anxiety was real, but she was trying to solve this by changing her husband’s behavior.
Instead, we worked on some exercises to address her anxiety.
First, it’s not possible to work on someone who is not in the room. Second of all, in this case, her anxiety, and not her husband, was the problem.
(As always, client stories are shared with both anonymity and permission.)
Children need to play
First, we established the need that children have to explore and play in their world. It’s how they learn things.
As infants they watch and learn, and then hold things. They sample the taste of objects they can lift to their mouth, or they press their mouth against things.
And why not, their mouth is how they first learn to take in sustenance from their mother or a bottle. Later, they bang things against other things. Throw them to the ground, out of the playpen, listening for how they sound, watching how they bounce.
Here they learn about materials, gravity, object permanence, slippery vs grippy toys and more. They are gathering and storing a great deal of information about how everything around them works.
Children need to play, because in fact, play is learning.
Once we agreed this was a true statement, we could start exploring her anxieties about the actual risks that are involved in less safe play as our children age.
Older children take bigger risks
The “risks” that a younger child takes – tasting a toy, banging a spoon against their high chair tray – are small, and relatively safe. Loud and annoying, sure. But not dangerous.
But then your child goes outside. And here there are all sorts of real dangers that even the most vigilant parent can plan out of existence.
And this is okay. We must keep in mind that the ultimate goal of parenting is creating an independent child. An independent child needs to understand how flame works, how to ride a bike, how to propel their body through water.
And, importantly, this involves making smaller mistakes. And getting hurt. In general, children don’t – and can’t – test themselves beyond their limits. If a child is big enough to climb into a tree, for instance, they are generally big enough to climb or jump out of it. The real risk comes when you (or your spouse) puts a child in a spot they were unable to get to themselves.
In this way, your child’s abilities, interests, and skills protect them from danger. Your job is to protect them from truly dangerous situations. If a sign they missed reports there is an undertow at the beach, this is not the place to test their limits.
But when they want to test how a stick performs in their hands, the best response is not to prevent them from picking it up. Instead, offer them advice or suggestions, or just keep an eye out so that they don’t risk hurting someone else or breaking something.
The reality of childhood is that injuries happen. Scrapes happen. Burns happen. You can and should work to keep them from happening unnecessarily.
But there is nothing you can do to prevent them all. And you don’t want to prevent them all. A child who goes into the world having never fallen down is not really prepared to live independently. The occasional scrape, cut, or bruise is part of the process of learning how the world works – and how to set limits on yourself.
If you or your child are shielding them from taking any risk at all, this is problematic parenting as well.
In the end she agreed to work with her husband for how and when to help their children take risks and try new things. And she promised to practice reacting with wonder instead of fear.
Struggling with co-parenting, or just looking for an outlet for the stress of parenting? You likely will benefit from talking to a licensed therapist like Sakina Issa.
Luckily, these conversations can happen discreetly and by appointment using the same tools you have grown comfortable using at work, like Zoom or GoToMeeting. Just click the button in the upper right hand corner.
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