Be Safety Nets, Parachutes, and Guides – Not Smothering Blankets

Finding the Balance Between Necessary Protection and Harmful Overprotection

Written by Irene van der Zande, Kidpower Founder and Executive Director

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The Overprotected Kid, an in-depth article in The Atlantic Monthly by author and national correspondent Hanna Rosin, raises thought-provoking points about how parental fear of children experiencing any risks can cause kids to have less fun playing than they used to and might be making them less capable of thinking for themselves. She describes a playground in the UK called “The Land” where children can have adventures building things themselves, playing with water, climbing, and starting fires. Ms. Rosin also cites studies to try to make the point that kids are no safer than they used to be, despite all of the attempts to protect them.

Certainly, I remember when my own kids were young noticing that the playgrounds in the Netherlands were so much more interesting than in California, where parks with teeter-totters that kids might fall off of or hit their chins on had become almost extinct.

The solution for our family and for our Girl Scout troop and Campfire Boys group was to go into nature a lot. Our kids had lots of opportunities to climb and fall from rocks and trees, cook on fires, forge streams, get bitten by bugs, and create structures and toys out of whatever was at hand. However, they also had adults around as safety nets and, when needed, guides, so they could enjoy these experiences while avoiding mistakes that had unnecessary risks of causing major harm. Getting scraped up or even breaking an arm from jumping off a log is an acceptable level of risk. Diving head-first into a shallow pool is not.

One of the most important features of “The Land” described by Ms. Rosen is buried in the article where she writes, “In seven hours, aside from Griffiths and the other playworkers, I saw only two adults: Dylan’s nana, who walked him over because he’s only 5, and Steve Hughes, who runs a local fishing-tackle shop and came by to lend some tools.” In other words, trained adult supervisors are always present at “The Land” to intervene when needed.

The real problem is NOT appropriate protection but mistaken, confusing, and inconsistent protection leading to anxiety and knee-jerk reactions that do not make anyone safer. Yes, we need to be tolerant of reasonable risks instead of smothering kids by wrapping them in so many blankets that they cannot move.

At the same time, it is irresponsible to abandon kids to fate without adequate preparation and knowledge about how the world works. Here are just a few of the heartbreaking stories I’ve heard about what happens when kids are left on their own without adult leadership.

  • At age 7, I was responsible for walking with my five-year-old brother to school. Suddenly he darted out in front of me and was killed by a car. Our family never recovered from this loss and 50 years later, I still struggle with deep guilt. If only we had had an adult with us to stop him, my brother would still be alive.
  • We were swinging from the tree branch into our swimming hole and the branch suddenly broke, hit my friend’s head, and she drowned. I will never forget jumping into the water to try to help her. Although I almost drowned myself and was just a kid, I still feel responsible. If only there had been an adult there to rescue her, my friend might still be alive.
  • The kids bullying me stuck me into an abandoned freezer, thinking I could get out but I couldn’t and almost suffocated. If only I had known how to leave and get help instead of going along with an unsafe game in order to be liked, I would not have had this horrible experience.
  • Once when I was out riding my bike on a hot day, a neighbor invited me to come in for a drink of water. Suddenly, he exposed himself and molested me. I was terribly shocked but didn’t know how to stop him. I felt too ashamed to tell my parents what had happened. If only I had known to check first with my parents before going into his house, this would never have happened.

Kids need guidance from their adults to act safely, and they need preparation for how to handle safety problems. Ms. Rosen tells a story from her own childhood about how at age 9 she and a friend told some younger kids they were locked in an imaginary jail and were not allowed to leave. Then she and her friend went off to have pizza and forgot about them for an hour. When they came back, the younger kids hadn’t moved, even though they easily could have. A couple of them were upset, but the “code” among kids ruled out telling parents anything.

From my perspective, this story is compelling evidence showing WHY kids need adult protection. There is a world of difference between being the older kids who felt in charge and the younger kids who felt trapped, vulnerable, and unable to get help. We don’t know how things ended up for the younger children in this story. But we do know that sometimes traumatic childhood experiences can cause kids to be at greater risk for a host of ills as they grow up.

As the mother of a four-year-old wrote, “Nostalgia for childhood days gone by is often as close to reality as my vision without my glasses is to 20:20. I love taking our daughter out to the wilderness trails to run, climb and explore – but I’ve also taught her important safety rules like not to bang sticks on the resident bee hive. It is possible to supervise without impeding children from learning, falling, or making unrecoverable mistakes. Yes, it’s good to experience consequences, but kids don’t need the hardest lessons to get the lesson.”

“I don’t have much nostalgia for having been stung by 29 bees one day when I was seven. I don’t think we need an emergency room visit and anti-venom shots to teach our daughter how to be aware of what a bee hive looks like and how to be respectful and safe around the bees so they can enjoy their home without our interference. We can enjoy watching bees and not be frightened of them if we know what to do and not do.”

Courageous Parents, Confident Kids creator Amy Tiemann PhD says that if we want our kids to be more independent, we as parents must be prepared to help them step by step to develop the skills and confidence to act independently.  “We can’t just change our parenting attitudes and limits overnight or declare a free-for-all.  I highly recommend Kidpower’s advice for co-piloting new activities with kids as they get older.  In the short run it may feel like more work, but like giving a toddler the time to experiment and learn to put on her own socks, rather than doing it for her, the results are worth the investment.”

In addition to knowledge, skills, and experience, young people also need to be at an appropriate level of mental, physical, and emotional development to have adequate judgment for handling a situation. As Kidpower instructor Erika Leonard says in her workshops for parents, “When my son was 13, he really knew what was involved in driving a car and could easily have done it if I had let him. But would we want him driving on the freeway with us? Of course not! Because in addition to the mechanics, there are many judgments involved in driving a car on a freeway. A 13-year old who has the knowledge to follow the rules of the road and the skill to drive the car is still, developmentally, 13, and is not ready to handle all the responsibility that comes with being an independent driver.”

I completely agree with Ms. Rosen’s premise that children need adventures and to learn to think for themselves. This is why Kidpower focuses on preparing children to navigate their world with independence and confidence and on giving them opportunities to face challenges and to grow.

Here are some resources that can help to define the balance between necessary protection and harmful overprotection.

Helicopters or Protectors? – How to Keep Kids Safe Without Unhelpful Hovering

Courageous Parents; Confident Kids: Letting Go So You Both Can Grow

Preparing Children For More Independence: A Five-Step Plan From Kidpower


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About the Author

Irene van der Zande, Kidpower Founder and Executive Director
Kidpower Founder and Executive Irene van der Zande is a master at teaching safety through stories and practices and at inspiring others to do the same. Her child protection and personal safety expertise has been featured by USA Today, CNN, Today Moms, the LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Publications include: Bullying: What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe, the Kidpower Safety Comics series, the Relationship Safety Skills Handbook for Teens and Adults, and The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People.
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