Overcoming the Fear of Letting Your Kids Roam Free

Last May I spent an amazing day with my kids. My wife was hosting a baby shower, so we were banished from the house. We went from museums to parks to pizza places (and plenty of public restrooms). The best part of the day was spent at a nature preserve and popular fossil hunting ground in our city, where we climbed the bluffs, collected rocks, and made dams along a small river. I let my sons roam free up and down the hills and through the woods while I stayed with my young daughter. A couple of times I lost track of them, and once I got pretty worried. But we all made it home fine, with only a few scratches on our legs and my son full of pride over his wilderness experience of digging his own toilet and, well, making due with leaves. Days later, two children were killed in a landslide while on a field trip, climbing the very hills we had been exploring.

Events like this make us want to be cautious with our kids, sometimes too cautions. My heart goes out to the families who lost their children in this tragedy, and I admit that my gut reaction when I heard the news was to vow to never going back to that park. It’s our protective instinct as parents.

But these days, sensational news coverage forces us to be all too aware of every awful thing that can happen. How did kids ever survive without baby sleep cameras and outlet covers?

But it is parental fears that keep kids locked inside the house and in front of screens, instead of out in the woods or running around with neighbors, making discoveries and experiencing the world.

Safety, in many ways, really is a myth. We all have examples of people who have been injured while trying to play it safe–the person who returns from bungee jumping and ends up breaking their back in the shower. Reporter Katherine Boo has first hand knowledge of this. After years of taking risks to document the lives of the poor, she decided to play it safe for a while. She ended up tripping over a dictionary in her apartment and puncturing a lung. With this in mind, she jumped back into her work, spent three years in the slums of Mumbai, India, (taking many risks), and wrote the amazing book Behind the Beautiful Forevers, which won the National Book Award.

We want our kids to be safe, but we also want them to take the kinds of risks that lead to authentic living and great accomplishments, like writing award-winning books.

Unfortunately, this means we have to occasionally contemplate the truth that our kids will get injured, perhaps seriously. It’s our worst fear, but we need to face it in order to develop a sensible amount of detachment, enough detachment to let our kids experience life. If we live with the mindset that it is our duty to protect our kids from every drive-by shooter, drunk driver, potential landslide, and skinned-knee, we’ll go nuts. If we can accept that life has its dangers, but it is within these dangers that valuable experiences happen, we can let go a little; at least enough to let them out the door.

My son loves to skateboard. I barely have the stomach to watch him at the skate park as he stumbles head-first down the ramps over and over. I had to prepare myself for the fact that broken bones were part of the territory. Of course, when he did finally break a limb, it happened in our backyard doing something totally unrelated.

If I never let my daughter out of my site for fear she’ll end up in some psycho’s basement, what kind of life will she have?

If it helps to ease your fears, take the time to contemplate the real facts, not what news outlets sensationalize. Most childhood abductions involve parents taking their own kids, and the majority of deaths in young kids involve car accidents. So your kids are in the most danger sitting in the car with you. Of course be safe, use helmets, baby-proof the stairs, and always monitor kids around water. But let them roam as well. Let them climb and fall (and take them to the ER as necessary). When something goes wrong, let go of the blame as well. 

A friend passed along a great article by Richard Louv, the co-founder of the Children & Nature Network and the man who coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” to describe our new generation of kids. The article, Seven Actions Parents Can Take To Reduce Risk And Still Get Their Kids Outsideaddresses the fears parents have over letting their kids roam free outside. He suggests the idea of being a “hummingbird parent,” somewhere between the infamous helicopter mom (always swooping in) and the free-range parent (“I haven’t seen Cindy since last Tuesday”). Be present but give them space. Louv argues that though there are risks to being out in the wild, there are also “huge psychological, physical and spiritual risks in raising future generations under protective house arrest.” The article has other great practical tips for helping parents overcome fears and get their kids outside.

The question for me is, now that I’m aware that potential landslides are lurking at our local fossil park, will I ever let my kids climb those hills again? It’s a tough to think about doing it. Of course, logic tells me that the odds of the same thing happening again are infinitesimal. But these are my kids! 

Still, when the snow clears, I know they will want to go back. I probably won’t want to take them. But I will.


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