Protecting our children from every possible harm, emotional as well as physical is the most fundamental parental urge. It is as essential as loving and nurturing them. On the other hand, our children need skills to navigate in this hectic world and be able to recognize the potentially dangerous situations. However, how can we expect them to acquire all those skills if we keep protecting them? Here are some ideas.
Create a safe space
The first thing to do is the easiest one and the most natural. For the youngest children (under two) a safe space should be created, giving them freedom to move about and explore, touch, grab, and nibble. This is the alternative to constant hovering over them and saying, “Don’t touch it”, “Don’t go there”, “Don’t get it in your mouth.”
It is a virtual safety bubble, and if age-appropriate, it does but perfectly. It prevents parents from developing a habit of forbidding and constant no-no-no’ing. However, many parents get stuck on this stage instead of progressing further, following the natural needs of their children.
Continue supporting their learning endeavor together with keeping it safe. When your child is out of the safe zone, accompany them. Gently guide them and prevent some potentially dangerous actions by withholding their hand when they try to grab something dangerous or timely distracting them with a safe alternative.
Explain the consequences
In the terms that your child is old enough to understand, tell them, what will happen is they do this and that. For example, “This is hot. If you touch, it will hurt”. Make sure your child understands the entire message. If your toddler is too young, all they hear is “touch it” and they do just as you say. For younger kids simply saying “hot” will do, provided you do this in a stern tone.
Children are very sensitive to the voice intonation, so it must be enough to warn them. The words “no” and “don’t” should be introduced as well, however, make sure not to overuse them, otherwise, they turn into white noise and your child will start ignoring them.
Teach them about safe and dangerous environment
As your child grows, allow them more freedom and let them go further and do more. Each environment has its own safety level. Make sure your child knows the difference between the living room, playground, mall and the road. Don’t scare them matching indoors against outside.
If you feel your child is ready to go on the swing without you, show them you trust their judgment. Equip them with safety tips and let go. “I think you are old enough to do on your own. Just look out for the moving swing.” Show your child he has some control over his own safety. If he’s aware, there’s nothing to be afraid of. Give him an opportunity for autonomy and responsibilities, increasing freedom with maturity.
Inform without scaring
Your children should know about dangers, but they must not live in permanent fear. They should know not to go with strangers that try to lure them away, but do not scare them to the point where they are terrified of any grown-up they see in the street. Do not impose your fears and anxieties upon them. If they feel your fears, they might become too timid to want freedom at all, and that is the most crippling way you can protect them.
Oversensitive, impressionable and dependent children are usually empathic and calm, never known to be troublemakers. However, in the end, they may develop victim mentality and anxieties, be passively obedient and lacking initiative. This is not what you want for your children. Therefore, make sure they feel secure in safe places and cautious in those, which pose real dangers.
Teach them to use communication tools
Technology today provides us with perfect tools for balancing freedom with safety. I heard parents among my acquaintance refer to the cell phone as “electronic leash“, and rightly so. You can track the location of your child with GPS, or as simple, as reach them and ask them where they are, is everything okay, and when are they going to be home. Of course, constant availability of the internet connection has its own risks, but you may choose cell phone parental controls for keeping it safe. Anyway, it is better, than denying them technology at all. Teach your child to use the phone to inform you when they are going to be late from school for any reason, make sure they know emergency numbers and in which situation to use them.
Allow them to fail
Do not rescue your children from reality, by appraising their efforts, when they lead them nowhere. This is emotional overprotection. Use the situation of disappointment and frustration to instill problem-solving skills. If your child fails at something, ask them questions, such as “What went wrong? What do you think you should do next time to succeed?” Show them your love and support, but do not sugarcoat their missteps. Let them cry and bounce back naturally.
Sooner or later there will come a day when we won’t be able to extend our protection and care far enough – whatever we do, our children will want to go further.
At this point, they must already be prepared to make informed decisions and assess risks. After all, this is our duty as parents in the long run – to get them ready for their own, independent life, not to protect them infinitely.
You have to let them go: let go of your hand and walk, go beyond the fenced backyard and play with their friends, go camping with their peers and explore the world.
Let them be what they are born to be: resilient, confident, assertive, determined, curious and independent human beings, able to stand up for themselves and handle their failures – not just your beloved little babies, suffocating in a bubble of safe space that grew too small for them to fit. Our protective instincts are very powerful, so often letting go is the hardest thing to do. Yet, it’s the best way to see your child thrive.