"Mommy! Daddy! Up here!"
My parents looked from across the street, where they were chatting with the neighbours. I waved proudly and grinned.
"No!" I shouted again. "Up here! In the tree!" They looked up – way, way up.
It wasn't until I saw their horrified faces that my eight-year-old conscience wondered if maybe – just maybe – I'd gone too far this time. The branches I was perched on 30 feet over our suburban Ottawa backyard suddenly seemed a hell of a lot flimsier than they had five brave minutes ago.
"Daddy!!" I screeched. "I can't get down!"
He was already at the foot of the big maple. He talked me down, gave me a terrified hug, admonished me for being too wild and then set an absolute limit on how high I could go. That was pretty much it.
That was the '70s. Childhood was about taking risks and running headfirst into our limitations. We started early: I walked to school with my sister at five and tackled trees (big trees) a year after that. Once I'd mastered my blue two wheeler, my brother Mike and I would disappear after school and on weekends, returning home only for meals and Band-Aids.
Fast-forward 35 years
Times have changed, haven't they? The planet feels like a far scarier and bigger place today than when we grew up. The abduction of a young British girl in Portugal – splashed all over the news this past summer – seemed no farther away than the next town. Never mind that such events are few and far between; our perception is that the danger is real.
And we are reacting – even though the statistics show that our kids are more likely to be injured or killed in a car accident than abducted by a stranger. Few kids under age 10 go to the playground alone anymore. They are escorted to school. They have so many supervised playdates and scheduled sports, their lives have become a curriculum rather than a childhood. "We sanitize their play spaces. We plasticize every sharp edge," adds Michael Ungar, a social worker and professor at the school of social work at Dalhousie University in Halifax and author of Too Safe for Their Own Good (McClelland and Stewart, 2007). In short, we make sure the big, bad world is safe-as-home and that our kids are "bubble-wrapped," a term that Ungar coined to describe the unsettling trend experts say is creating a generation of kids so overprotected, it's stunting their growth.
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Good intentions gone bad
Ironically, the bogeyman isn't under nearly as many beds as he used to be. Thanks to public education and awareness, fewer Canadian kids die in accidents – 9.7 per 100,000 in the 1990s compared to 24.8 in the 1970s – and abductions by strangers dropped to a relatively rare 35 in 2002. "This is a safe world," comments Dr. Peter Marshall, a family counsellor in Barrie, Ont., and author of the international bestseller Now I Know Why Tigers Eat Their Young: Surviving a New Generation of Teenagers (Whitecap, 2007). "Of course there are tragedies, but Canada is remarkably safe."
So much for the good news. There is another set of statistics that has experts plenty worried. They reflect kids who are so hemmed in by efforts to protect them that they either rebel with risky behaviour or become overburdened by fear, and bounce from one incomplete educational or employment experience to the next. "We see the results all around us," says Ungar. "Children who don't leave home until their late 20s, but who don't contribute financially or emotionally to their families, either. A whole swath of our youth is feeling lost amid the sanitized, prescribed, regimented order of their too-safe upbringings."
Our kids aren't happy despite all we've done to keep them safe and close. Depression and anxiety now occur in nearly 14 per cent of children, according to the federal government's 2002 Well-Being of Canada’s Young Children Report. "I've been working with kids in jails, and I began to notice kids from great families, nice communities," says Ungar. "When you talked to them, they told stories about their own adventures that had deteriorated into delinquent acts. First, there was the risk-taking kind – 'I can risk my body with drinking or drugs. I can risk my life by driving underage.' As strange as these behaviours look to us, most of the young people I meet inside our institutions tell me stories of their risk-taking as behaviour that solved problems. It made them feel older."
What they are craving, he adds, is a sense of responsibility. "I meet children who find delinquent means to feel responsible for themselves or others. These are kids who run away from home to try a night or two at a friend's house because they never get to be by themselves. I got a sense that the treatment options for these kids should include things like getting them a job, or giving them a chance to use a chainsaw, or going to a concert by themselves. What they're looking for is a rite of passage."
Getting a job? Going to a concert alone? Hardly earth-shattering to anyone born pre-1980, like Mike Canaday, a tough-minded Grade 8 teacher in Saskatoon who was raised by his widowed mother. "As a teacher, I see more and more social misfits because their parents do too much for them. My own kids make responsible decisions because we give them the leeway to do so. And if they make a bad decision, they lose a freedom," the 45-year-old says of the action-consequence approach he and wife Bernie take with their four boys, aged 11 to 17. Mike's oldest son knows, for example, that if he gets a speeding ticket, he pays the fine and loses his car privileges. The result is that the Canaday kids have a surprisingly long leash, and are happy with more responsibility than their peers.
Page 2 of 4 Letting go
So why are most of us so reluctant to let go and let our kids take risks? "Today there's a strong emphasis on parents to be in charge of everything in a child's life," says Dr. Wayne Hammond, a Calgary-based clinical psychologist and founder and CEO of the nonprofit organization Resiliency Canada. Marshall adds that overburdened parents trying to do it all "overestimate the likelihood of something bad happening, so something that's a remote possibility becomes an almost-certainty. [We envision] a child molester behind every tree." Put like that, our vigilance does seem over the top. But the real dilemma, says Ungar, is that our fear and hesitancy has left our kids with no adventure. "At some point, we have to let them manage risk themselves," he adds.
Empowering your kids
My girlfriend Jean treads the fine line between sweaty-palmed fear for her three-year-old and determination to rear a self-reliant young man. She's got her hands full: Griffin is a teddy-bear of a boy, but he has the soul of a buccaneer. Worried he'd get lost on one of his "adventures," she did something last winter that may shock some parents. One afternoon, she pulled up near her house in Ottawa, pointed out landmarks, dropped Griffin off and instructed him to walk past three backyards to theirs while she parked out front. "I wanted to see if he knew where our house was, so if he wandered, he could find it. It was terrifying for me, but I was empowering him."
On that afternoon, Jean took a vital step in raising a resilient child, says Ungar, who adds, kids are ready to take on risk from the moment they squirm off your knee. "It's the parent who pulls them back who runs into problems. The trick is in increasing the intensity when they need it."
How much risk?
Deciding when and how much risk your children can take can be tricky business, indeed. The key is to start small and early. For preschoolers and younger children, set "safe" within-eyesight boundaries; street-proof your child about strangers and road safety; send your five-year-old on his trike to the corner (while you watch from a distance); or find a safe tree for your daughter to climb. "Of course, you should minimize real danger," says Ungar. "I'm for wearing a helmet while tobogganing, but I'd be at the bottom of the hill, making the biggest jump possible. The best rule is to ask yourself what you did as a kid, and be guided by that."
It also helps to tune in to your child's personality and let that guide the risks you expose him to, says Hammond. "I may have climbed trees, but my child may not enjoy that. If we listen, we'll know how to respond to the challenges that children need. Look for opportunities to nurture our children's passions; it will be through those things that your children will find their dance."
Page 3 of 4On the frontline, that means judging what your child is capable of and letting him do it, even if other parents look askance at the risks you let him take, says Andrea Tkatchuk, a 34-year-old mother of four. While no one is openly critical that she lets her seven-year-old son, Harrison, walk a short way to his suburban Saskatoon school, she knows some parents disapprove. "Sure, in the back of my mind, I wonder what could happen, but Harrison has to know that once he leaves the house, he has to follow certain rules to stay safe."
Still uncertain your nine- or 10-year-old should go anywhere alone?
Depending on where you live, you can offer substitutes like going downtown on the bus with you at first, then with a friend. Let your child start a leaf-raking business or go mountain biking with a friend through a rugged wooden area, says Ungar.
Alternatively, walk to school with him for a few weeks, gradually letting him go farther by himself until he's on his own. Better yet, contact nearby families and organize a "walking train" – a group of local kids who gather other walkers on their way to school. "We're talking about teaching kids to be independent and responsible," says Marshall. "You have only 18 years to get them to that point."
A less-active child's desire for independence can be met in emotional ways. Ungar suggests letting a child pick a colour and paint his own room, letting your daughter choose her own disastrous haircut, or giving her responsibility such as a paper route or packing for certain aspects of a family trip. Perhaps spend time showing an eight-year-old how to use a dull penknife safely – then give him his own. Teens can take risks too, by being given responsibility for younger siblings, planning some of the family groceries or starting a small business.
Even the best-raised kids sometimes take risks with tattoos, piercings and wild hair. Don't panic if this happens in your home, says Hammond; it's normal for teens to experiment with independence and taking responsibility for themselves. Rather, remain curious about their motives and discuss consequences. Contrary to popular myth, research indicates that, of the 10 per cent of teens who rebel, if those kids have healthy, open relationships with parents who listen and adults who can mentor them, they'll turn out fine.
That's probably what my concerned father was hoping when, at 18, I came home with a flame-red punk Mohawk, combat boots and a matching attitude. Dad took one look – and a deep breath. "I can't say I like it," he said quietly, "but I really admire the rebel in you. I wish I could have been one when I was younger."
In that moment I knew, as I had as a child, not only that Dad understood why I took risks, but also that he would always support me. That trust was a gift. And without it, says Marshall, "we may not end up with a generation of young adults who are totally capable of handling themselves or the real world."
4 things kids need to hear
Children covet facing positive risks and taking on responsibility because they'll hear four affirming messages from adults and peers, Michael Ungar says in his book Too Safe for Their Own Good.
1.YOU BELONG. Risk and responsibility give a child a sense she fits in somewhere.
2.YOU'RE TRUSTWORTHY. When others trust a child, the child will trust himself.
3.YOU'RE RESPONSIBLE. Children relish the opportunity to be seen as soon-to-be grown-ups.
4.YOU'RE CAPABLE. If adults identify special abilities in children, they'll feel capable of making good decisions for themselves.
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