Why We Should Encourage Our Kids to Do Semi-Dangerous Things
I heard the panic in her voice. “I can’t look! You’re going to fall.” It was just me and four kids, about three hours from home.
Here I was on what was supposed to be an awesome outdoor adventure with my kids and two of their friends, and I wasn’t looking for any drama. We were halfway into our hike along the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore when, for a brief moment, I feared the worst. What if one of them fell? What if one broke an ankle?
“I’m coming!” I shouted as I ran toward the panicked voice.
As I rounded the curve of the trail, I breathed a huge sigh of relief as I saw my two kids balancing on a giant fallen log, hanging about 15 feet above the ground, totally OK. It seemed stable. Well, stable enough.
Their two friends were watching them with a mix of caution and intrigue.
“You don’t care if they do that?” one of them asked me.
“Nah,” I said. “Go ahead. Try it.”
My son’s friend joined him up on the log, walking slowly at first and then finally speeding across with ease. My daughter’s friend wasn’t quite sure, but she finally climbed to the edge and then slowly scooted all the way across on her bottom.
At the time, the whole thing made me giggle. But as I reflected back on it, it made me realize just how sheltered we’ve become. Something as simple as balancing on a fallen log isn’t encouraged that much anymore. Quite the opposite, some consider it dangerous, while others think of it as a disturbance to the natural space. And it isn’t the only activity that has gone by the wayside of yesterday’s childhood.
Skipping rocks? Someone will probably end up throwing rocks at someone’s head, so that’s a definite no go. Inspecting a bug? It could bite!
We seem to be terrified to let our kids go out and explore the world on their own in fear of them getting hurt. In fact, this is so common that there’s even a term for it now—helicopter parenting. This phrase was coined in the 1990s by child development researchers (Foster Cline and Jim Fay), and it’s been on the rise ever since.
This doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon, even though studies show us that the long-term effects of our overprotection are real. An article in the Institute for Family Studies cites the importance of kids learning to “think for themselves” so they learn how to cope long-term. Another article in Psychology Today from 2016 cites stress as being a good thing for kids to learn to deal with. In particular, “safe stress,” which includes everyday stress items like problem-solving on the playground or doing homework, helps brain development. It also cites anxiety and depression as being very real and potential side effects of not giving kids room to roam.
The bottom line is that we need to back off in certain areas — for instance when kids play. When they do, they face their fears, they become more independent, and they become problem solvers.
Some will argue that the world in which we live in is more dangerous than it was 10, 20, or 30 years ago. It’s true that crime is real and statistics can be scary, especially when that’s what dominates television news, websites, and social media. However, these don’t always tell the right story, and living a life in a way that is focused on prevention is no way to live.
Michael Lewyn shows us this first-hand when he did research through Touro Law Center about walking to school. He found out that walking is a whole heck of a lot safer than not walking. Of course, the location of the walk can make a big difference, but he has a point. He shows that most kids are safe when they walk to school. It even helps to promote healthy habits.
So if you’re a parent who believes in the “1970s summer” or just letting your kids experience some of the childhood that you did, how do you do this? Let’s all try to encourage more semi-dangerous (but not truly dangerous) behavior. Yes, it can be hard to fight the urge to be overprotective for the good and well-being of our children, but we need to try.
I’ve done a fair about of research and writing in this area. I’ve written books about nature, the outdoors, and getting kids outside. I’m also involved in and believe in the work of the Children & Nature Network, a group that does very important work to show how critical it is to get kids outside. From his work and just my observations of being a parent, I believe most of the things we can encourage our kids to do fall into one of three areas--more talking, more independence, and my favorite thing of all--more climbing.
There’s no doubt that kids are texting more and talking less. An article in The Atlantic cited research from the Pew Research Center, saying that more than half of teens are communicating with their friends via messaging devices these days instead of face to face. What could this mean long-term? Researchers are still figuring this out, but it doesn’t look good. We know that texting, phones, and electronics are addicting, releasing dopamine from our brains. Apple says iPhone users check their phones about 80 times a day.
Now let’s tie this back to encouraging semi-dangerous behavior. Talking isn’t dangerous, right? It’s not, but I suggest we go back to something we’ve been engrained NOT to teach our kids to do. I think we should encourage kids to talk to a stranger. (Gasp! Stranger danger!)
Yes, we teach kids from a very young age not to talk to strangers, but let’s promote “semi-dangerous” activity as they get older. Kids are not developing basic communication skills, and this is going to have a long-term effect. A study out of UCLA found that kids who had far less screen time on a daily basis were much better at reading emotions overall. We need to teach our kids how to talk, engage, and make conversation with people around them. So green light for semi-dangerous activity #1.
A lack of independence directly relates to overprotective parenting. Yes, that might mean a skinned knee from time to time or some bruised elbows, but we owe it to our kids. They need to be able to cope when they’re 23, and their girlfriend dumped them. Or when they’re 30, and they lose their job.
Let’s not just stop at climbing, but let’s also encourage our kids to explore. Bugs? Yes. Trees? Absolutely. Dark caves? Oh yeah (even if some of us need a flashlight because we don’t like the dark).
A couple of months after the log incident happened with my kids and their friends, we were at beach in Milwaukee along Lake Michigan. My kids were splashing through the freezing cold waves and covering themselves in sand that I’m still cleaning out of my car today.
While they were throwing sand at one another and having an awesome time, I saw a mom scolding her 3-year-old for getting wet. “I told you not to go that close to the water!” she said. “We don’t have a change of clothes.”
She probably had no idea how ridiculous she sounded in that moment, but it was a little sad to see this kid get in trouble for something so simple. She was just being a kid.
I’m guilty of this, too. I find myself stopping my kids from exploring in the woods (“You’ll get poison ivy!) or getting mad when their shoes are covered in mud (“Those are new shoes!). But we can rewire our thinking. Instead of being worried about poison ivy, I can teach my kids how to identify it. And instead of being mad about the new shoes getting muddy, I can have them take them off make sure they have old shoes easily available instead.
It seems odd to be encouraging any kind of dangerous activity with our kids, but we have to find a middle ground. It’s actually for their own good, influencing both their mental and physical health. It’s not easy, but I have a proposal. As parents, let’s all make a vow to stop the helicoptering. Let’s stop being overly cautious and protection, and instead put those efforts into climbing across the logs with our kids.
6 Daring Activities for Adventurous Families
1. Everyone find a bug …and touch it! Most bugs do not bite, sting, or cause harm. There’s no reason to be afraid. So challenge everyone in your family to find a cool bug. Those who are brave enough can even touch it.
2. Saw, hammer, and build something. Resist the urge to do the sawing and hammering for your kids. Let them be involved in the entire process. Good woodworking projects could include a planter box or birdhouse.
3. Have a wrestling match. Set the rules, pick your music, and then let the family wrestling tournament begin.
4. Climb to the top of something …like a roof. Do you have a ladder? How about a roof? Now it’s time to combine the two to have an epic family climbing adventure.
5. Sleep out in the open. Lots of families camp, but if you want to take it up a notch, try sleeping out under the stars. Yep, no tent over your heads!
6. Start a fire. Show your kids the proper technique to build a good fire. (There are YouTube clips for that, too!) Let your kids help use the matches, too!
6 Daring Activities for Adventurous Kids
1. Walk across a log. Think you have good balance? Put it to the test! Find a giant log on the ground of a forest to walk across. (Tip: Holding your hands out like a T really does help you balance!) Once you master this skill of a log on the ground, find one above the ground. You got this!
2. Stick your head out the window. Okay, you do have to keep your seatbelt buckled, but then roll your window down and feel the wind blowing through your hair. Stick your tongue out. Maybe even give a shout.
3. Cook something by yourself. Start with scrambled eggs. You’ll have to make sure you don’t get any shell when you crack it. (Hint: Don’t have the heat too high or they’ll cook too fast.) If you want to challenge yourself, try over easy eggs.
4. Hang out in your backyard by yourself. Sometimes it’s good to just have some alone time. It makes you think of things you’d never think of with others around. Some people love alone time while others find it a challenge. What is it like for you?
5. Climb a tree. The first thing you have to do is find the perfect tree. Avoid ones with thorns or really scratchy branches like evergreens. Look for a tree with big, thick lower branches. If the lower branch is too high, have someone give you a boost!
6. Jump your bike off a ramp. Whether you try making your own or go to a local skate park, this is a good one (and one of the most challenging ones). You might need to solicit help from a parent to double check the safety before you try it on your own. Keep in mind that it’s important to start small and build it up as you get better and better!
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