The other day I was at the playground with Leander who had just started enjoying the slides. So he was busy climbing up the frames or walking up the slides. At some point I watched a woman standing behind him, holding her hands to protect him – my son – from falling down. When he was up there safely she walked around and stood at the bottom of the slides – to “catch” him. As I was just somewhere between stunned and surprised I didn’t say anything, just watched her. Leander went down the slide and she helped him get off. While she did so her own son – age 6 or 7 – climbed up the frame. Slipped. And fell to the ground.
It was a very strange scene to watch. And obviously it did lead to the conclusion that this mother has – with the same behaviour she exhibited towards Leander – saved her own son from taking risks and – in the end – led him to experience such accidents later. If we are always around, surround our kids with the safety of our hands and arms and hinder any fall – they will not learn to estimate heights and distances, risks and what they are capable of doing. And what not. When in a new situation, they will look to us for help. But what if we’re not there to save them? And of course, we cannot always be.
This does of course not mean we let our children run around and not care at all. Streets are dangerous. Stairs too. Here our gentle guidance is inevitable. There is a middle ground between too much control, and none at all – even though in the media (and on some parenting forums!) it would appear that our choices are ‘white’ or ‘black’, ‘helicopter’ or ‘neglect’, ‘authoritarian’ or ‘permissive’, there are in fact a million shades of grey in between. We believe the same is true for risky play.
So all we have to do is to provide a safe play area for kids to explore. In the house, but also outside. We try to choose playgrounds that are made for children our age; use a stroller for long distances along big roads; provide a safe area in which our boys are free to explore. Because only then, once they are free to explore without our constant worry or our ‘saving’ arms, they are free to really learn. And this is when we can step back and learn to trust.
Learning to fall, Learning to trust
Risks are part of the game. As soon as babies begin to move around freely they start taking risks. They roll over one side without knowing what will happen when they are on the other side – on their belly. Their head is still heavy and difficult to control, and usually the first rolling over is followed by a bang on the floor or surface underneath. A crucial moment. Do I jump in and support him, place blankets and mattresses everywhere so he won‘t hurt? Or do I let him learn the Art of Falling? It is not an easy moment for babies and parents, but this is when we make big choices – how do I want my child to feel in the world? Confident and able or helpless and uncertain? And if I ‘save’ him now, am I saving him from all future falls? All bad decisions? Or…
The head to floor distance grows as the children grow and develop. First it is tiny, there might be a bang on the floor when they hit it for the first time, and of course this upsets them (and us!). But if we gently observe and explain, we will see that the second, maybe third time there is indeed… no bang at all. We will be left to admire how skilfully our child has figured out how to support his head, so he doesn’t hit the floor. How they gently pull the shoulder backwards, work those neck muscles, lift the head a bit higher, hold it at just the right height – this is truly art. And to know your own body so well is empowering, and so it gives them courage and confidence to move to the next step. So the earlier we start letting them learn to fall, the earlier we can learn to trust them. And allow them to learn to trust themselves – what a great gift to give, don’t you think?
Let them choose
First step in an unknown situation is usually: Do I WANT to try this? Do I want to climb up there at all? In other words – Am I ready? And we can’t know if our child is ready – only the child knows that. Only he knows if he has the courage, ability, strength and will to try this thing he’s never tried, and only he knows if he can try it right now. You see many parents arriving at the playground, lifting their kids out of the stroller and leading them around the space. “Come on, let‘s slide. It‘s fun!“ Without even once asking the child if she wants to.
When letting your child choose for themselves they might not look at the slide for a long time. This was the case with both of our boys – long looks in the direction of the slide, but no clear sign that they feel they want to go ahead. And then, one day, they walk over and have a closer look. Often the steps up are much more interesting than the slide down. So they start climbing up. If the steps are small enough for them they might go up all the way. If the space between steps is too high, they might try and try. Might struggle and complain. Or simply step back down. All of this is ok and part of the process. Part of learning what they are capable of. And what not.
We shouldn‘t talk them into doing it. All we can do is narrating. ‘I see you want to go all the way up there.’ Quite often this is enough. No need to comment that it‘s too high, they are too small or “not ready yet.“ All of this would discourage them and judge their capabilities that – seriously – we quite often underestimate. More often than not they know better than we do what they are and are not capable of doing.
If the child comes back down – we don‘t need to comment on that. Because she just went back to her own safety zone – she knew what she needed to do to feel safe again. If she won‘t come down but starts to cry or complain you can continue to narrate: ‘You are trying really hard to get up there. I see that.‘ And at some point she will ask for help or we offer help by asking: ‘Do you need my help?’ Usually they want help that moves them up. But that‘s not help, that‘s dangerous. Because this is jumping developmental steps – she will be higher than she can get to herself, which means she will have no idea how high she really is. And you will have taken away from the success that is yet to come and be her own – climbing all the way up by herself. Because surely, sooner or later, she will get there. When she is ready. Simply take her down and explain: ‘I will take you back down now because you got stuck.‘ And then see if she wants to try again or run off and do something else.
Imagine you climbed a really long ladder to paint the walls in your house. You are up there and suddenly you feel unsafe. You want to come down but the whole thing is shaking. Your legs are shaking and you are scared of bending down because the ladder could fall under the shift of weight. Down at the bottom of the stairs you see your partner, who says: ‘Just take your right foot one step down.‘ and grabs it. Don‘t you want to yell at him ‘I can‘t! It‘s too shaky!‘ and at the same time shake off his hand from your foot? Because from the safety down there on the ground this person can‘t possibly feel the fear you are going through up there. And even if he can – he would certainly do things differently on the way down. He might take the right foot first, you‘d prefer the left. He might take two steps at once. You want to go one step at a time. Always starting with the left. Very slowly. He might jump the last 3 steps. You will not relax until you are down on the floor.
If a child is allowed to climb up somewhere on his own once he is ready for it, he will find his way of getting back down at some point too. Until then – we do not guide. Not explain what to do. We‘ll simply offer help and take them back DOWN.
Let them be, but not alone
So the golden rule is to let them explore without leaving them alone. To be there but not in their way. To watch and observe without distracting them.
Our balance is partly situated in our inner ear. ‘Balance is a choreographed arrangement that takes sensory information from a variety of organs and integrates it to tell the body where it is in related to gravity and the earth.’ (http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=21685). Balance is a combination of what the work done by your ears, your eyes and your brain. It is our inner instinct to shout and yell “Be careful!“ or “Watch out!“ But it‘s exactly these moments when children do fall. Because at that very moment they stop being careful. Because they heard us shout and turned their heads and attention towards us and away from what they were carefully doing. Because we are taking away the attention of their ear, which should at that moment be busy balancing.
The more you watch your child carefully the more you will learn that in fact he is taking care of himself. So don‘t just step back and let them be. Watch from a distance. Surround them with trust and jump in when they do fall. Help them out of a difficult situation when they ask you to.
Learning to assess risk is learning to judge reality; it is learning what we can and cannot do; it is, above all, learning what to do in a situation when we don’t know what to do. This is a great skill, one that is useful in just about everything we can think of. Knowing how to look at dangerous situations and figuring out what to do to stay safe is definitely something we want our children to learn. Knowing when it is worth making that extra step to the other side might be one of the things that will determine how they fare in life. Essentially, knowing how to take risks means also knowing how to stay safe… most of the time. After all – sometimes risking in life is exactly what allows us to go where we need to go, and maybe find our own path.
Man cannot discover new oceans, unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore. (Andre Gide)
For more reading on risk go to:
Aunt Annie’s fabulous website and read these fantastic posts: