Fearful Parenting Isn’t Really Parenting at All

What if I told you that my four-year-old gets to stay home alone when, every week, I take her friend home? What if her friend lived directly behind us, so for the entire time it takes me to walk out back, across the lane and into her friend’s backyard and back again, my daughter sits in our house, playing? That's right, for a whopping three to four minutes, my daughter is not in my eyesight. Mind you, I'm not saying I do this. But what if I did?

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Cue the lynch mob.

I’ve heard the comments made to parents who have admitted to giving kids small freedoms like. They're accused of being horrible parents. They're accused of risking their child's life. They're told that if they aren't willing to watch their child for every second of every day, they should never have had children. 

After all, something bad could happen.

Well, yes, it might

It also might not.

As parents, we're sometimes so fearful of all the things that might happen, that we shut down the possibility of all the amazing things that will happen. Amazing things like having our children build their self-confidence and trust in themselves.  

Most of us want to give our kids that tiny inch of freedom, but living in such a fearful society, we hold back. We don’t want to be judged and admonished for not keeping our child perfectly safe at all timesWe worry about the intrusion of child protective services, of losing control of how we parent. 

So we tow the line. And our children suffer.

Society has decided that our kids are too precious, too vulnerable. Our fear of broken bones makes us limit our kid’s natural physical prowess. Sure, we'll let them climb in safe and sterile environments, but heaven forbid they actually go outside and climb a tree. Our fear of stranger danger means our kids can’t ride bikes or walk to friends’ homes or go to the park to play without adult supervision, so often they don’t go anywhere, except to their rooms to play video games or watch TV.

The result? Kids who have no knowledge of how to take risks or handle dangerous or tricky situations when they do encounter them.  It also leaves them lonely, isolated, and doubting their own capacities. 

A child who has never been given the opportunity to learn how to be safe doesn’t suddenly know how to be safe at 12 or 14 or even 18.  Children who aren’t given the opportunity to be active and explore aren’t suddenly going to take on those challenges at the “right” age, they will have lost them. And it will have been our fault.

I imagine that if I did leave my child for the 3 to 4 minutes it took to drop a friend off, it might just build up her confidence and competence.  One week, I might even come home to her holding a wet cloth, and to hear her explain that she’d spilled her water, so she’d cleaned it up and had poured herself a new glass of water. And that she was just about to put the wet cloth in the laundry when I walked in. I can imagine telling her how proud I am of her and watching her sit a little straighter as she continued playing and drinking water. 

But in our culture, if I became or admitted to being that parent, I would face the angry mob who see only the risk, instead of the opportunities, in those 3 to 4 minutes.  I might even end up with a better relationship with my daughter when she’s older too.

I'm not suggesting that we leave our babies home alone or preschoolers to fend for themselves. We use our own internal compass to tell us what our individual children are ready for and when. Then help them build their budding independence in an appropriate way.

If I were that parent who left my four-year-old, I would use my fear to guide me. I'd think of the things that could go wrong, then instruct my daughter accordingly. I'd set up rules, such as no climbing and no eating (so she wouldn’t fall or choke). I would make sure she knew not to answer the door if someone knocked and that she knew how to get out of the house if she had to. I would do all this knowing how unlikely it was that she would encounter any of these problems, but recognizing that this was all part of her growing up and learning how to be safe on her own. 

It’s time to loosen the reins. Let's teach our children how to be competent and safe. Let's accept that, sometimes, there may be accidents. All we can do is minimize the risk, we can’t completely eliminate it -- unless we completely deprive our children of a life worth living. Fearful parenting isn’t parenting, it’s the absence of parenting. We're not teaching our children anything -- except how to be afraid.

Image via Flickr/vastateparkstaff

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