Do I worry too much about my kids?

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Q: I’m the mom of three children — two boys ages 9 and 6, and a 4-year-old daughter. I wonder if I am unreasonably consumed by fear and anxiety about my kids’ safety and well-being. This issue is starting to be a source of friction between my husband and me, as he thinks my rules for our children are too restrictive.

For example, he objects to my rules about outdoor play. Our children may play only in our fenced-in yard or in a designated area on the driveway. (I use orange cones to mark the safe zone.) They may not ride bikes in the neighborhood without an adult. I don’t allow climbing trees or games like dodgeball. I insist on helmets and pads for any toy that has wheels. These rules seem obvious to ensure that my kids don’t get injured.

My husband thinks the kids are old enough to go to the neighbors’ yards to play and should be able to ride their bikes up and down our sidewalks. He doesn’t make the kids put on kneepads or wristbands when they use scooters or Rollerblades. He even dares them to do things that I think are dangerous, like climb down the outside of our play structure rather that use the slide.

He talks frequently about the way we grew up and says we turned out fine, and he even says I am doing the kids a disservice by babying them. I just want to safeguard my kids and keep them from getting hurt. Summer is here, and this subject is turning into a daily argument about what the kids are allowed to do.

A: There’s more to this question than just an inquiry about rules for outdoor safety. We all make rules that help ensure (to the extent we’re able) that our kids avoid injury and unnecessary risks while still having fun and enjoying healthy, vibrant childhoods.

But when your rules stifle rather than support your children’s age-appropriate growth and development, you have to ask who those rules are for — your children, or you?

As a culture, we’ve become almost obsessively fearful about our children’s health and safety, despite the fact that we live in the safest country in the world, at the safest time in human history. We’re so afraid that they’ll get hurt — or worse, that they’ll be victims of some evil stranger — that some parents eliminate the very activities and experiences that would teach their children to be self-reliant, resourceful, independent, and capable of taking care of themselves.

Rules that restrain children’s natural desire to extend themselves could send a strong message that reasonable risks are a cause for fear. So, for example, your rule against climbing trees may be communicating anxiety about something that generally can be done safely. Later in life, that message about fear may rear its head again when your child is reluctant to explore a new opportunity, seek a better job, or move to a new community.

In fact, when kids are successful at things like climbing trees, they gain self-confidence and genuine self-esteem, and then they internalize those feelings, affirming the message that they are capable of succeeding at something that is scary at first.

I’m such a believer in this strategy that I was known to leave my kids stranded on the top rung of our swing set! I recall vividly one summer day, talking with a friend in my kitchen, while one of my children yelled repeatedly for help from the backyard. Despite her insistent pleas, I ignored Kate until finally, rather than rescue her, I coached her to climb her way back to safety. My kids often heard my reassuring reminder, “If you got yourself up there, you can get yourself down!”

When it comes to rules, the larger issues are: What are your goals for your children? What are your parenting objectives? What lessons will your rules help you to teach?

Our job as parents isn’t to protect our children from every possible negative experience life may hold, but rather to prepare them to be strong, brave, independent, and self-assured as they negotiate the world around them. God knows from firsthand experience that it is painful to watch our children suffer. But we’re not called to prevent their suffering. We couldn’t if we tried. Instead, we’re asked to steward them so that they have the character, conscience, and faith to face whatever life brings.

In that vein, playing outdoors is great practice for the real world. When our children are small, we’re wise to confine their play spaces so we can supervise them and make sure they’re not getting into danger. But as they grow, we can give them more freedom so they can practice the skills and habits that will foster greater independence.

It may put a knot in your stomach at first to allow your children to expand their horizons to the wider neighborhood rather than remain in the security of your backyard. But the gains in their maturity — not to mention in their sense of fun and adventure — are irreplaceable.

This summer, consider some new rules about asking permission to ride bikes in the neighborhood, checking in every hour when playing at friends’ houses, and climbing only as high as they can go without needing help to get down again. Once you see how competent and confident your children really are, you’ll realize that you needn’t fear!  

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