Julia Steiny: Kids Need to Take Risks
Thursday, August 02, 2012
Recently I was commiserating with one of my favorite colleagues, a woman whose job daily smushes her face in the unfortunate habits of modern parenting. We regularly exchange solutions, possible partners, and books that might help ease the scourge of over-protective, enabling, anti-resilient parenting and schooling.
Suddenly and out of the blue, her face registered thrilled shock. As if a white egret had miraculous perched at the next table, she whispered: “Did you see that?”
Apparently, she told me whispering, the boy had been restless – like most kids would have been – and had started rocking about in his chair. Sure enough, he tumbled to the floor.
But here’s the miracle: Without more than a moment’s skip in the conversation, the adults glanced over to assure themselves that he was in fact okay, and let the kid get his own butt back into the chair, with no to-do. They skipped the thundershower of cooing concern. He was old enough to know better than to be rocking around like that. They didn’t act like he shouldn’t have gotten hurt. We all have to learn certain lessons several times.
The boy must have been embarrassed, because by the time I looked over he was conspicuously into his book.
My friend and I marveled at this public example of good parenting! Let the kid learn from with natural consequences. With risks come tumbles. If you fall, fail or screw up, learn a lesson. If you need to amuse yourself for a bit – because life can’t always be about you – what materials do you need? If you’re in a public place like a coffee shop of if the adults want to talk, you need to pipe down for a while.
He also had an excellent sticky bun, so he was well compensated for his patience.
More than anything now, American kids need to learn resiliency. Hyper-protective, enabling parents don’t help. Resiliency is about grit, the ability to tough out boring or difficult stretches, to bounce back from mishaps and failures, to learn from them, to sooth and entertain yourself. These are skills that help kids be successful over a lifetime.
Risk-free childhoods are totally getting in the way of the way kids learn naturally. I’m not suggesting being harsh to them or putting them in harm’s way. Just let them meet adversity and cope.
Research funded by a German insurance company revealed that kids who grow up in super-protected environments are likely to be accident-prone adults. Well, yeah. If your body and ego have never been bruised by falling off your chair, your body and ego haven’t learned to warn you about the dangers of rocking.
Other research is beginning to suggest that babies compulsively put stuff in their mouths as an evolutionary adaptation. They’re immunizing themselves against the bacteria of their home and land. Again, by sterilizing our kids’ environments against the risk of infection, we set them up for allergies later on, literally.
We’re heading back to school soon. Surely the learning experts will give kids opportunities to develop some grit and personal responsibility there. When kids suffer natural consequences, won’t teachers guide them through bouncing back and lessons learned?
Gosh, no. Thanks to the American lust for liability lawsuits, the habits of anti-risk parents have infected schools.
Schools have sterilized their play areas so they bore the pants off of kids. The only benefit of most schools’ play spaces is that absolutely nothing exciting can happen. Thus no law suits.
A school near me is across a very quiet street from a nature preserve. That land could be a fabulous learning lab or fun place for recess. Nah. The school can’t risk getting the kids across the street, never mind policing them in open nature. To let them loose and insist they come back at the sound of some whistle is unthinkable.
Although, building a set of rules with the kids and staff together, including consequences for breaches, would give the kids a message of trust. Learn responsibility or we’ll yank your freedom until you learn not to abuse it.
Many schools no longer have anything like recess because they are panicked about not using the time to drill for tests. Discovering the world first-hand is a waste of school time.
Furthermore, freedom and opportunity might lead to bullying. Rather than teach the kids social-emotional skills like empathy, listening, and expressing yourself effectively, adults eliminate free social time altogether. Which teaches what? Granted, social skills haven’t been public schools’ job historically, but so? It is now.
For the record, Finnish schools, the international darlings of education, give their kids frequent breaks and places to run and roam. They play outside, minimally supervised, even in rough weather.
Taking risks is learning the hard way, which is fine. Risks help emerging adults become healthy, resilient, mindful, empathetic learning-sponges.
We’re going about the business of learning bass ackwards. By trying to eliminate risk, we silence curiosity and the resulting natural consequences. Then we force-feed kids learning for which many have little or no taste.
Let them fall, fail and flounder. But be there as a guide and resource. That way we’ll get better results, of all kinds.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at EducationNews.org. She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at email@example.com or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.
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