Are you instilling healthy or unhealthy fears in your child?
Are your child’s fears keeping them from playing outdoors? Taking calculated risks?
“A generation of children is not only being raised indoors, but is being confined to even smaller spaces. Jane Clark, a University of Maryland professor of kinesiology . . . calls them “containerized kids”–they spend more and more time in car seats, high chairs, and even baby seats for watching TV. When small children go outside, they’re often placed in containers–strollers–and pushed by walking or jogging parents. . . Most kid-containerizing is done for safety concerns, but the long term health of these children is compromised. (35)”
This week on the podcast, Amerey and Kathleen talked about healthy summer living/eating on a budget. They delved into the topic of healthy fears when discussing some outdoor activities. You can listen here.
I was at the beach with family. Two of my young granddaughters were playing in “pool” Graypaw dug them and gleefully screaming every time the surf washed into it, drenching them. A grandfather and his granddaughter stopped for a minute to watch. Then they decided to stay for a while. He sat on the beach with her on his lap as she watched my granddaughters will wild-eyed wonder.
“She’s afraid of the water,” the grandfather explained. “She won’t go near it. I just wanted her to watch some kids enjoy the beach without fear.”
Fear Has a Job
Fear – an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.
Fear isn’t a bad thing when it’s healthy. Fear’s job is to keep us safe. Fear stops us from doing things that will harm us. We would like our kids to fear jumping in the deep end of the pool when no one is around. We’d also like kids to fear running out into the road.
For years, my sister lived up a long lane connected to a busy road. Her young son loved to go across the gravel road and spend time talking to an elderly lady who was like a grandmother to him. They became concerned that he would go down the lane to the busy road and needed to tell him emphatically not to do that. His parents needed to instill a healthy fear.
Not long after that, a cat was run over on the main road. My brother-in-law walked my nephew down and showed him, saying, “The car smashed him flat!” It worked — my nephew told everyone about the cat and said the car could smash him flat, too. That’s a healthy fear.
How Do You Instill Healthy Fears?
“Fears can be healthy and children should be encouraged — and helped — to develop what Lucas calls a “sense of knowing” when something could bring harm. But parents should balance risks, fears and over-protectiveness with the importance of encouraging children to be independent and show initiative. ‘If a parent is present in their children’s lives, he or she is the child’s guide — not their guard,” she said. “If children grow up feeling confined, they are at risk to act out their parent’s greatest fears. Measured freedom is the best teacher.’”- When Fear Drives Parenting What Happens to the Kids? from desertnews.com
Measured freedom and healthy fears don’t stop a child from exploring his environment. A toddler will climb a rock that is eight inches off the ground and yell, “Look at me!” A five-year-old will climb a bit higher and jump further. These kids try things that make their blood tingle with healthy fear, and that’s good.
My summer childhood days were full of outdoor fun. My brothers and sisters and I went creek jumping, rode our bikes around our country neighborhood, played for hours in a pine forest, and only went home for dinner. Then we went back outside for some kick the can and flashlight tag. I had plenty of fears, but none of them had to do with playing outdoors. I knew to stay away from the train track when I heard a train (okay, we put pennies on it and ran for our lives). We had no screens, phones, or other things to distract us from the joy of the outdoors.
“Years ago, children roamed their neighborhoods, often playing with any kids they ran into, choosing many activities on the fly as ideas presented themselves. Nowadays, parenting often defaults to a take-no-chances approach of scheduled play dates and supervised visits to the neighborhood park, offering little room for children to grow by exploring, which can spill over into other aspects of their lives.” – When Fear Drives Parenting What Happens to the Kids? from desertnews.com
Things have changed. Parents have more fears, and so do kids. Most people don’t live somewhere it is actually safe to send kiddos outdoors unsupervised for the day. This is where measured freedom comes in.
Take your kiddos to a creek, state park, lake, pool, or [fill-in-the-blank] and be present. Let your kids develop the sense of knowing they need to have healthy fears. There is nothing like a scraped knee or chin to let you know you jumped from too high a height. An ocean wave knocking you down in the surf tells a kid the ocean is fun and not to be messed with at the same time. Tromping across the creek and slipping on a mossy rock teaches a child that the green ones are slippery.
And guess what? You can totally do all of this with your child. No need to bring a chair to sit on. Lose your phone (except to take a few photos) and rejoice with your kids in their triumphs.
Don’t “help” children climb, jump or balance on objects. If you can resist assisting children, it will make their experience safer, as well as give them the opportunity to face challenges that are appropriate to their abilities. – Jason Runkle Sperling, author of Unplugged: How To Build A Family Nature Club
Instilling Unhealthy fears
One last thing: Don’t instill unhealthy fears in your child.
I know it’s hard. Some of us have generational fears. That’s not some spooky weird thing as if someone were chanting and cursing you. Fear can be a curse, but not in that way. I’ve met people who never learned how to swim because their parents were afraid of the water. We all know those parents (or are those parents) who helicopter over our kids telling them of all the horrible things that can happen to them if they go out the front door.
The most horrible thing about instilling unhealthy fears in your kids is that, to some degree, they will come true. They will fall off the swing, get stuck on the slide, and hurt their appendages on a trampoline. It’s going to happen. Instead of saying, “See, you can’t do that!” help the child work through the fear by letting them tell you what happened a few hundred times. Then put it into perspective.
I had an opportunity to help my niece work through a fear on a recent visit. She fell from a swing a few years ago, and although she didn’t break anything, it was painful. She told me she couldn’t swing high anymore because she was afraid. So, I talked her through it. I asked her some questions, let her answer, and then got on the swings with her. We swung really high. I even showed her how to hang upside down, and she tried it.
Effects of Unhealthy Fears
- Kids won’t enjoy activities.
- Kids will miss out and stay on the sidelines of life.
- As adults, these kids will pass their fears on to the next generation.
Healthy Fears Checklist
- Don’t be a fear-based parent.
- Speak the truth. Don’t exaggerate what will happen if they _______.
- Save the “you’re really going to get hurt” for the things that they really will get hurt on!
- Let them fall from 8 or 12 inches when they are small. If you rescue them every time, they won’t develop healthy fears.
- They will respect the physical laws of nature by incremental degrees if you give them measured freedom.
- Don’t wait until they are 6 or 8 to let them hike, climb, etc.
- Provide S.A.F.E. activities.
What are you waiting for? Go outside and play!
This week on the podcast, Amerey and Kathleen talk about healthy summer living/eating on a budget. They delve into healthy fears when they talk about some outdoor activities. You can listen here.
And be sure to check out Part 2 of this article: “Are You Instilling Healthy or Unhealthy Fears in Your Child? (Capital Letter Syndrome/Foster/Adoption Edition)”