We’re all adventurers now it seems. Everywhere I look, someone somewhere is challenging themselves in increasingly innovative ways: cycling stupid distances for charity, bungee jumping during gap-year travels, trekking up remote mountains to find themselves.
I can’t be the only one who doesn’t feel my life would be incomplete if I never run a marathon, or fail to get up close and personal with a Great White Shark?
Now it seems we should also be encouraging our children to take more risks, according to the latest piece of research designed to make us parents feel even more inadequate about what we’re doing wrong, not doing enough of or not doing at all.
This time, as reported in the Guardian, it’s the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, sharing some findings that our generation’s cotton-wool approach to parenting is doing more harm than good.
The Guardian sub editor helpfully interprets this for us as “Play such as jumping from a height or letting a child get lost contributes to self-esteem and can reduce the risks they take as adolescents – and avoids a sedentary lifestyle, which can lead to obesity and chronic disease.”
Loosely translated, this basically says “let your kids get lost in the supermarket once in a while because you’ll prevent them from being depressed, fat and a drug-addicted teenager.”
We all know how terrified we are of obesity, psychological dysfunction and the dreaded teenage years and all the experimenting that will bring. So, if you’re a bit of an anxious type of parent – and I’ll confess to being one of those – this is one hell of a conundrum.
I’m completely on board with encouraging kids to get out and about more and independent play because for so many obvious and well-documented reasons the associated benefits to their wellbeing and development are plentiful. However, some people are just more cautious than others, and that goes for parents as well as kids.
I regularly beat myself up at the play park when Toby freezes at the top of a climbing frame and seeks help, thinking it has to be down to my helicopter approach when he was small. When he was two he fell off a climbing frame from quite a height and I shrieked the place down. He was completely fine physically, but my over-reaction probably scarred him psychologically for life.
He’s not just tentative with climbing frames. With swimming he’s terrified of drowning. He worries about falling off his bike.
When we went to Legoland, I tried to encourage him to go on a roller coaster (see I do try and do risky things with him) and he categorically kept refusing so we ducked out of the queue. When he showed me the rollercoaster (because you couldn’t actually see it from the queue) I conceded that he was right and it did in fact look like it might be a bit scary. A fellow parent chipped in, siding with Toby and pointing out that she wouldn’t let her five-year-old go on it. I wanted to say “actually he’s six” and tell her off for undermining my attempts to try and encourage my son to be a bit more bold but I just smiled.
I don’t want Toby to hold back from things he might enjoy but some of us just aren’t cut out to be adrenalin junkies. Is it so bad to get more pleasure from living out vicarious adventures through books, films and dare I say it computer games, if these activities are balanced out by other forms of sport and exercise?
Of course, a parent’s fear of bad things happening should never interfere of normal healthy play – especially if that play involves fresh air and exercise – but nor should we be judged for choosing our own boundaries.
Personality types and past experiences help define our own personal comfort zones. One person’s risk is another person’s reward but regardless, pushing out of your own comfortable happy place is always brave, whether it’s a child doing that or a parent.
I’m pretty resigned to the fact that I can’t change my anxious ways so I’ll be taking this study with a giant shovel of salt, and will take a chance on my own parenting instincts instead.
If you’d prefer to take a less cavalier approach to the study, you can read the full article here.