Originally published in the North Star Blog on October 12, 2012
Safety is a big concern for many parents, and understandably so. Bad things do happen and as parents we want to do everything we can to prevent any of those bad things from happening to our children. When I was preparing for my first child, someone explained parenting to me like this: “It’s as if your heart moves to the outside of your body and goes walking around in the world.” Our external hearts seem so tender and vulnerable; it is normal to have anxiety and occasional terror regarding their safety.
As parents and teachers, how do we keep our children safe? Some feel that our culture has gone a little overboard in our attempts. Our children seem at-risk and the world seems treacherous, but our fears may surpass the realities.
According to FBI crime rate statistics, crimes such as murder and kidnapping peaked in the 1930′s and have been declining steadily since then. Since 1995 there has been a steep decline, and yet most people seem to believe that there is more violent crime and danger for our children than ever.
Ironically (and tragically), according to the Bureau of Justice statistics on murder of young children, 97% are killed by a relative or close family friend. Only 3% of victims are murdered by strangers. Statistically speaking, home is much more dangerous than the world at large.
Lenore Skenazy, author of Free Range Kids, writes extensively about what she sees as our culture’s overly intense focus on safety for our children. This page on her website offers extensive lists and sources for statistics related to dangers facing our children today, all of which indicate a decrease in danger since 1980.
I share Skenazy’s view that we parents are often overly concerned about safety. Sometimes our fears lead us to inadvertently thwart our children’s development into independent, capable, and self-reliant people.
We all remember when our teens were toddlers and going through the developmental stage where they shouted, “No!” and “I do it!” throughout the day. Normal, healthy young children have a drive for independence. They want to tie their own shoes and they want to click their own seatbelt and use their own fork. A child becomes capable by practicing new abilities. Children do not usually wait until they are fully ready or able before trying a new skill; in fact, attempting the new skill is how they eventually master it, whether it’s walking, zipping their own jackets, playing violin, or taking the bus independently.
The drive for independence begins in early childhood and continues through adolescence. Skills need to be practiced. Mastery does not occur spontaneously. As children get older, other obstacles may appear, like anxiety and self-doubt, but the drive is in there, too. It’s our job as parents and teachers to support the drive and share our own world experience without cluttering up the works with our own fear and anxiety.
We want to keep our kids safe, so they may need suggestions regarding how to scaffold their burgeoning skills. If your teen wants to travel independently, for example, maybe a solo day trip to a nearby city is in order before they buy their own tickets to Amsterdam.
Sometimes we push our kids too fast and feel disappointed about what they are not doing. Other times we hold them back. They may be more capable than we realize. Our teens are striding and stumbling and being pushed into an unpredictable future, as all teens have always been. They are currently managing challenges that we adults did not face in our own youth and they will continue into new realities as the world continues to change. We must believe in their ability and in their potential, and know that while life has dangerous elements, that’s no reason to stay home.
Of course, no teen becomes a fully contributing member of the world overnight. It’s a process. Just like walking and zipping one’s own jacket are processes. But when we believe these things are possible and expect them to occur on the child’s own schedule, with help, with support, and with trust in ultimate success, our own fears and doubts will quiet down, and we can enjoy their unique process of learning and growing.