One of my youth organization clients once had a three-year-old child sneak out of the facility, cross a busy road, and visit a toy store. Fortunately, he was not hurt, and the store owner called my client to come get him. I helped my client figure out where their system had failed and where it needed to be shored up. It turned out that the child’s uncle frequently took him to that store, and the child had been watching for an opportunity. On that day, the teacher on the playground had not properly locked the gate. The child picked a moment when she wasn’t watching him, and he took off for the store. One of the team I was working with commented, “You know, aside from the danger, it was an impressive feat for a 3-year-old. He is sure to become a famous CEO unless adults convince him that the world is a scary place.”
That comment has stuck with me as I have pondered how to help kids learn to be resilient. As I have set out in previous posts, we know that protecting kids too much can have negative side effects such as increased anxiety and depression. Yet, leaving kids without enough protection increases their risk of abuse, bullying, and other victimization. So where do we draw the line? How do we teach resilience without letting 3-year-olds play in traffic?
Each situation is different, and each parent has to make individual decisions for each individual child. There are, however, some principles that we can apply as we figure out what our kids need.
•Accept Age-Appropriate Risk
The term “risk” makes us automatically recoil, but we have to realize that risk is not a negative thing. It’s simply a part of life. Every time we start a friendship, we run the risk of eventual hurt. every time we apply for a job or promotion, we run the risk of rejection. Every time an athlete competes, he or she runs the risk of physical injury. The only way to avoid risk is to never grow or change.
Yet, that doesn’t mean we let out kids face just any type of risk. We need to ask ourselves what the actual risk is — not what we fear and not what “could happen,” but what actually is likely. For example, one common fear of letting kids play outside by themselves is that “someone”could abduct them. Yet, the actual statistics show that kidnapping by strangers is exceedingly rare. Statistically, children are at much higher risk from people they know.
On the other hand, unsupervised children can make all sorts of dangerous decisions. We have to factor in their maturity level and experience with good judgment. Thus, parents know not to leave toddlers at home alone, but they can trust preteens for a few hours at a time.
We need to do the same analysis for every risk that our kids face. First, figure out whether our fears are rational and based on actual statistics or research. Then, decide if our child is mature enough to handle the risks that come with a particular decision. Based on that analysis, then we can decide how far we can allow our kids to push our comfort zone.
•Teach Strategies for Reducing Risk
Our next step is to decide if we can help our kids reduce the risk involved in an activity. For example, we don’t think twice about putting kids in a car to go somewhere, even though until recently, automobile accidents were the leading cause of death for children. We reduce the risks as much as we can with seatbelts, car seats, and driver training. Then, we get on with our lives.
We can do the same with other activities our kids engage in. If they want to go to a party, we can ask a lot of questions about who will be there and how long it will last. We can confirm with the parents that adults will be at home and supervising. We can set curfews and discuss ground rules about drinking and illicit drugs. In other words, we can help them put in place the equivalent of seat belts and airbags to reduce the risks that they may face.
•Help Them Develop a Plan B
Once you have helped your children put in place realistic safety belts, help them think through potential problems and ways to cope. For example, if your child goes to party, discuss what they will do if parents aren’t there or the situation gets uncomfortable. Do they have access to Uber or another ride-sharing account? Do they need to call you? We always made our kids go through a checklist before leaving the house, including whether their phone was charged, whether they had cash for a taxi or access to our ride-sharing accounts. Knowing how to solve a problem, and having the confidence that they have that knowledge, are essential to helping our kids grow into resilient adults.
In sum, we all want our kids to have the self-confidence to take risks and grown into confident adults. To get them there, we have to move past our instincts to protect them from all risks or unpleasantness. We, and they, will be much better off if we focus on helping them learn skills to deal with the unavoidable risks of growing and changing.