Fearless Kids, Fearful Parents

by Heidi- August 16, 2012 • 12:35 pm

I’ve spent the last week thinking a lot about parenting expert Madeline Levine’s recent New York Times column, in which she writes:

“Parents must acknowledge their own anxiety. Your job is to know your child well enough to make a good call about whether he can manage a particular situation. Will you stay up worrying? Probably, but the child’s job is to grow, yours is to control your anxiety so it doesn’t get in the way of his reasonable moves toward autonomy.”

This stood out to me, because I work on mobile phone services that help parents manage that anxiety, by giving them information they need to make the “good calls” Levine refers to. And while I’m not a parent, it wasn’t so long ago that I was one of those moving-toward-autonomy teens—one who benefited quite a lot from the freedoms that having a mobile phone afforded me.

My divorced parents lived a four-hour-drive away from each other, so I spent a lot of my adolescence making that trek, by plane, train, or automobile. If Amtrak was late or traffic was bad, they worried. But knowing they could reach me eased their worry, and mine. And because their worry stayed in check, I enjoyed a longer “leash.” That phone helped both me and my parents test the waters of my growing independence, by providing a safety net and establishing the “You have to answer if we call, and promise to call us if you need anything” guideline. Of course, I was a teenager, so I knew I’d never need them, right? In retrospect, though, I realize that having that lifeline let all three of us feel safe enough to grow.

I can only imagine how hard it must be for parents—a lot of scary things happen out there. Letting your first-grader ride the bus alone, or dropping your tween off at the mall to meet friends are scary firsts. Or that first bike ride—what if they get lost? And forget about driving—what if that rusting clunker they saved for months for breaks down … or worse? But while all these activities pose genuine risks, the way to manage those risks, and the anxiety they create, is not to prevent kids from taking them. These firsts (and seconds, and thirds) aren’t just nice-to-have milestones—they need to happen.

The best adults begin as kids who were allowed to be active, independent teens. I know, because I was one of them. Every time I dealt with a curveball during those trips from one end of California to the other, my confidence grew, my resilience grew, and my consideration for my parents’ feelings grew. The more “line” I got, the more chances I had to increase my responsibility. And that’s precisely what prepared me for a fantastic European backpacking trip several years later, while I was in college.

Of course it’s never easy to see your child stumble, but falling is an essential part of growing up. Learning how to do things, making mistakes, recovering from mistakes, these are skills I sometimes see parents neglecting to teach their kids, out of fear. I fear for those kids, who won’t get the experience they need before they truly are completely on their own. Levine says, “It is in the small daily risks—the taller slide, the bike ride around the block, the invitation extended to a new classmate—that growth takes place. In this gray area of just beyond the comfortable is where resilience is born.” Teach your kids while they’re at home, while they have the safety nets that come with being a kid, and take careful measure of which risks are worth it.  Kids may be fearless, but parents don’t need to be 100% fearful to balance that out. They just need to be able to manage.

Photo courtesy thejbird

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