I drove down the country roads crisscrossing Indiana and Ohio, my friend looking on a map while we tried to figure out where we were in the middle of the Heartland.
We were just two high school students nearing the end of our junior year, and we were hopelessly lost. No cell phones, no GPS, and just our adolescent map skills to get us to the youth retreat that we were headed to. We had promised our parents that we were going to be fine, but we didn’t have any way to call them to let them know that we had no idea where we were.
And you know what? We found the right road, eventually. We got there safe and sound. And we did it without calling our parents for assistance.
In the end, we gained temporary independence and a sense of accomplishment. And we might have kept part of the adventure to ourselves.
If that happened to one of my high school students today, they would have been on the phone with their parents in an instant, asking them for help. If that were to happen to my own children in a few years, I would probably expect them to do the same thing. I don’t know that I would let them leave our driveway without some kind of communication device so they could contact us at the hint of an emergency.
But isn’t it that way with everything related to our children today? We have baby monitors to tell us the instant our babies cry and video monitors to make sure they are sleeping safely. We can put GPS trackers in our kids’ backpacks and clothes, and elementary through high school students now have cell phones that allow them to contact their parents any time of the day.
We’ve even limited the range of their outdoor play space. Last year, the mom of one of my daughter’s friends admitted that she had just recently started letting her daughter, at the age of seven, play in their backyard without supervision. I didn’t admit to her that our kids have been playing by themselves in the backyard since they were both able to safely climb the climbing wall on our playset.
While we still have to walk our soon-to-be kindergartner to his classroom, our daughter has been walking herself into school by herself since the first day of first grade. And yet my husband and I watch parents accompany children much older than our eight-year-old, through the gates of their school to make sure they get to their assigned classrooms or lockers without incident.
So what are we teaching our kids?
Look, I get it. I’m a 21st century parent with WAY more information than any parent needs. Social media and the news alert me to every and any danger to my family’s well-being. I can Google symptoms before I contact a doctor who is just going to tell me to sit it out for 24 hours. My phone gets Amber Alerts to let me know every time a local child is taken away from a designated guardian. And in a 24-hour news world, I know the instant that some kind of national or international news disaster happens.
I’m a 21st century parent who grew up with parents who had none of the above. When I look at headlines from thirty years ago, they were no better or worse than they are today. And child safety? Actually better than when my parents were letting me run around our Detroit neighborhood.
I’m going to ask it again: What are we teaching our kids?
Are we teaching them to be afraid of what is around every corner by telling them that the things they want to do aren’t safe? Or are we giving them the tools to take reasonable, age-appropriate risks?
The research says that we’re not. Instead, we are raising our children to be anxious and risk-averse, which is hurting them down the road. I see high school students medicated for very real anxiety because they can’t handle anything less than perfection. They struggle with academic autonomy because they are afraid they will do something “wrong,” when really they just need to find a new way to do it. But they want to play it safe.
The risk aversion doesn’t just make our kids afraid of making mistakes; it makes them afraid of the world. And if our kids are afraid, how can we teach them how to reach out to help others?
Like most parents afraid of abductions and the growing world of human trafficking, I don’t want my children to talk to strangers, but I still want them to recognize people in need and do what they can for them, even if they don’t know them personally. I look down the road to when my kids will be old enough to go on mission trips (domestic and abroad) and travel with friends, and I fear them traveling to what many consider “scary and dangerous” places, but I also want them to see and learn from those with very different life experiences and world views.
If I’m intent on raising my children into compassionate and socially aware Christian young people, I have to be willing to teach them how to take risks and let them do it. That doesn’t mean teaching them to act fearlessly, but instead teaching them that reasonable risks are good and a natural part of growing up.
And yes, risk taking is…risky. Last summer, while we were traveling from Texas to Michigan to visit family, my then-five-year-old son decided to take a chance and follow his much bigger and much more skilled then seven-year-old sister across a high set of monkey bars. Both my husband and I had our hands full and my husband watched as our son’s grip slipped off the bar and he fell to the ground, catching himself with his arm.
Three days later we discovered that he had completely fractured his wrist. We didn’t lecture. We didn’t tell him to never do it again. We just told him that sometimes that happens and he was welcome to try monkey bars again, once his cast was off. Except maybe he should have a spotter while learning the mechanics of monkey bar crossing.
We let him try something on his own and it resulted in a cast for most of the summer. But in the end, our son learned an important lesson in safe risk-taking and it hasn’t slowed him down.
We need to allow ourselves, and each other, to give our kids more space. We need to work together to give our children more lead in the lines that connect them to home. And we need to support each other as we do it, shutting down the Internet shaming of parents who allow their children to take risks as they are ready to do so. If our kids are too scared of the world around them, we only have ourselves to blame.
This post reflects the views of the author, and is intended to start a conversation. Please share your thoughts in the comments below!