Ensuring that your kids are both having fun and not at risk of serious injury can be a juggling act of epic proportions. It’s hard to find a middle ground that works well for everyone involved – and recent research shows that children’s development of confidence and problem solving skills might also be at stake. Children who are allowed to take risks – and make mistakes and even get hurt – tend to grow up more confident and better able to analyse potential risk-vs-benefit scenarios.
There are a few key areas to consider when it comes to avoiding smothering your children, while being careful of their safety and well-being – and that of other people.
Communication: talk your children through various scenarios that might occur while they’re out of your immediate area, and help them to figure out ways that they could react appropriately. For example, you could ask your children what they would do if they fell over and hurt themselves. (Does it still hurt after a minute? Is it bleeding?)
Environment: What sort of environment are you in? Is it a safe one – for example, fenced, with minimal hazards and soft landings for any falls? Is it supervised – is a responsible adult watching all children and ensuring that no major harm occurs to any of them? Is it highly dangerous, like a busy road, with serious hazards all around? Generally speaking, match your level of attentiveness to the environment; you can relax and let kids enjoy a good play when they’re in a safe, supervised space.
Initiative: let your children look at the environment and decide what they want to do and how they want to play. Letting them take the initiative transforms the play time from parent-led to child-led and helps them to develop the skills they’ll need to act as leaders in their study and working lives.
Ground rules: it’s OK to set a few ground rules for your children. For example, sharing play equipment with other children, especially younger ones – or not leaving a specific area. Make sure your ground rules are age-appropriate. A reasonable restriction on a five year old might be to not go out of sight of a parent, whereas for a fourteen year old the restriction might be to stay within two blocks of home.
Control: where safe and appropriate, let the children control their actions and the consequences. For example, you might stop your child from climbing a tree because the branches are too thin to support their weight, and redirect them to a better choice. But stopping them from climbing to a low height altogether because ‘you might fall’ teaches children that fear of failure is far more important than assessing dangers realistically.
Showing your children that you trust them to play sensibly and make mistakes can provide them with lifelong benefits. They build confidence, learn about consequences of risky behaviour, and get the hang of mitigating risk without losing out on fun. It’s a great way to prepare them for life as responsible adults.