When We Try To Keep Our Kids Safe, Are We Actually Harming Them?
I looked up from the New York Times online. “Hey, Miriam,” I asked my wife, “remember the park-bench-lady?”
“The one who told us that if we didn’t make our kids stop jumping from park bench to park bench she’d call the police?How could I forget?”
We were reading one of last week’s most shared articles in the NY Times, “Motherhood In The Age of Fear“, by Kim Brooks. The subtitle is “Women are being harassed and even arrested for making perfectly rational parenting decisions.” The piece obviously hit a nerve–there were almost 2,000 comments on the article in just a few days, and I was one of the tens of thousands of people who shared the article with others.
Picture an idyllic scene. . . two children are leaping from a picnic table to a park bench outside a library, laughing, and occasionally falling on the grass. Another child, too small for bench jumping, runs in circles and also seems to be enjoying herself. A couple of adults are nearby…and a third adult is passing by on the sidewalk–looking more than a bit concerned.
Let’s jump inside their minds and examine what their inner viewpoints might be.
ME: Wow…look at my physically active kids! They are so healthy–and they are jumping from park bench to park bench–they are so free, and creative. . . and gosh, to have kids like this we must be pretty amazing parents!
THE PASSING PERSON: (Yeah, I know I’m making this up, but I’m sincerely trying to consider what might have been going on.) Wow. . . look at those out-of-control kids! They are in danger of falling, breaking an arm or dying. And although they are wild and undisciplined, the real tragedy is that their parents are just watching them, oblivious to the danger. . . gosh, they must be pretty neglectful parents! I’d better step in to protect those kids, and if I can’t do it maybe the police can. And gosh…I must be a pretty amazing citizen!
That moment was one of many in playgrounds, parenting group meetings, and conversations over the past years in which I’ve realized that while all parents want to keep their kids safe, people have radically different mindsets about how to do that.
Parenting is not a simple or easy job, and families and kids and situations differ wildly–but in today’s article, I’m going to argue that the best way to approach safety is what I call “reality based parenting,” with the ultimate goal of helping kids thrive without us, and I’d like to contrast that view with what I see as an ultimately irrational, unhelpful and anxiety producing cultural norm which is making our kids scared and making it harder for them to succeed.
My “Are You Kidding Me?” Parenting Class
Miriam and I want to be better parents–so when there is a parenting related presentation or lecture, we often go hoping to improve our parenting game. Recently we attended a program on helping teenage kids navigate risks. The presenter showed us how easily drug paraphernalia could be disguised, gave us information about brain development that showed that teenagers are more susceptible to risky behaviors, and told us that most of our kids were doing dangerous things without our knowledge.
Later in the presentation, the presenter advocated having the password to your teenager’s phone and periodically going through it, searching their room for contraband on a regular basis, and using location devices to always know where they are. This rubbed me the wrong way. Sure, my kids and I have signed phone contracts with each other in which they agree that I can go through their phones, just like I can open their door and go through their rooms, or wallets–but the fact is, I’ve only used these powers one time, when my son and I looked at his phone together. The idea that I would go through my kids’ stuff regularly and covertly felt wrong.
The focus of the presentation was firmly on keeping your kid safe by controlling their access and exposure to potential dangers, and seemed to view kids as creatures with immature brains who can’t be trusted to have good judgement on their own. This conflicted with my worldview, where kids are kept safe by parents gradually giving young adults more responsibility–and independence is the goal.
Eventually, the presenter advocated using location devices to track your kid even when they went away to college. At this point, I noticed that some other parents also looked disturbed at this concept. So I raised my hand and spoke up to voice my disagreement—ha, ha, no, I’m just kidding–I did not speak out because I wanted to be respectful of the presenter and because I was afraid that my kids would be shunned by other families if they knew that I didn’t want to track their location when they went to college.
But I was thinking: “Are you KIDDING me? I have WAY better things to do with my time than tracking the location of an 18 year old, and he’d better not need tracking or be OK with my doing so, or I would think something went seriously wrong in the growing up process. Besides, what am I going to do from hundreds of miles away if I think there is a problem–jump in a helicopter? And wait a minute–would this imply that my eighteen-year-old’s cell phone contract would still be under my name?”
I was also thinking “Wait, this approach is so very different from our family’s approach, yet our kids seem pretty healthy, happy and well adjusted–and we get along pretty well. Something does not compute!”
Situations differ, and I’m positive that for some families and situations routine room searches or tracking adults probably make sense. I realized my real issue wasn’t with the advice–it was with the assumptions underlying the advice. The presenter’s world view seemed to be that:
1. The world is dangerous and therefore parents must keep kids away from danger.
2. Kids are inadequate to keep themselves safe and therefore their parents must control them.
The presenter, the other parents and I were all good people who cared about our kids, yet the recommended parenting actions seemed out of line with what felt right to me. I was having trouble putting my finger on why I felt so bothered–and I wanted to get a handle on it.
News Flash: The World IS Full Of Risks
Before I argue that the mindset that kids are incapable of protecting themselves in a dangerous world is ultimately in conflict with reality, let me make something very clear:
There ARE major risks in the world.
As a parent, drugs in particular terrify me. When my guitar and I arrived in New York City in the 1990s, drugs seemed rampant in every club I played in. Although I tended to the cleaner-cut side of the music scene, over the years several friends struggled with addiction and one bandmate ultimately succumbed to a heroin overdose. I saw first hand how difficult it is to change course from early misjudgments.
Then, one of my beloved teenage students also died of an overdose. The impact of this on my career as a teacher–and my perspective as a parent–was massive. As I played and sang “Morningstar” by AFI at the memorial service, I looked out on hundreds of shattered faces of kids, teachers and relatives and I felt utterly helpless
I felt overwhelming fear for my students, loved ones, and my new born child–not just fear of addiction–but fear of unpredictable dangers like car crashes and violence–and fear of all I’ve witnessed in my own extended family and friends, like getting arrested, dropping out of school, unplanned pregnancy, homelessness, abusive relationships, overwhelming debt, mental illness–and on and on! I asked myself what most of us do at some time or another: “How can I protect those I love from pain and danger?”
So I am deeply conscious of the risks in the world. In fact, I’m so anxious for my loved ones to be OK that I really want to test my assumptions and make sure that my parenting is based not only on my gut reaction, but on reality.
Flawed Assumptions Lead To Flawed Conclusions
Our culture makes some assumptions that seem to make sense, but are actually either incomplete or simply wrong–and flawed assumptions lead to flawed conclusions.
Mistake: Seeing only danger in the world.
Reality: The world is full of danger AND ALSO IT IS FULL OF KINDNESS AND OPPORTUNITY.
Yes, the world is full of danger–but it isn’t ONLY full of danger. There are cool people to meet, awesome skills to learn, places to see, experiences to have, and incredible opportunities. The world is full of people who like young people and want to help them progress. It’s easier to learn than every before, mass transit allows teenagers tremendous safe freedom of movement, and, if you’re reading this, then that means your kid has somebody awesome in their corner, looking out for them, too–that is one lucky kid! There is only one way that our kids can experience that kindness and opportunity–they are going to have to go get it!
Mistake: Thinking that we can actually keep kids away from danger.
Reality: Your kid is going to be exposed to risk no matter what.
Can children be protected and insulated from the world? Well, I guess you could lock them in the house–but if they are going to engage with the world at all, from going to school or a playdate, to joining a club, going to college or having a job, they are going to be exposed to risks. And if you did keep them in the house, what about the risks of not getting enough exercise, or being exposed to brain draining screen content for hours and hours? Many of our so-called safety measures are creating kids who are passive, unimaginative, and unable to solve problems. There’s no risk free option on planet Earth.
Mistake: Misunderstanding real risks.
According to a TED talk by Applied Tinkering founder Gever Tulley, these are the top 5 perceived mortal risks to children in the US:
- School Shootings
- Dangerous Strangers
And these are the actual, heartbreaking, top 5 causes of death in children:
- Car accidents
- Homicide by a family member or family acquaintance
Risk perception matters because it drives our parenting behavior. It makes sense to use more mental energy on the top risks, doesn’t it? And luckily, they seem a bit more controllable–wearing seat belts, insisting upon a strict no texting rule while driving, keeping guns out of the house, and making sure your kids get swimming lessons all seem like risk reducing steps.
And what about non-deadly risks? Try asking yourself “what is actually dangerous to my kid, where I live, in my reality, in the long run?” Your list will be different from mine—but here is an unscientific list of behavior which I personally think is far more dangerous to my kids than, for example, jumping on park benches
- Picking bad friends
- Lack of exercise
- Not having a friend or not spending time with friends
- Bad study or work habits
- Ingesting too much low quality media
If kidnapping really was a pervasive risk, then it would be crazy for me to let my 11 year old walk 1 1/2 miles with her friends to get a slice of pizza. But I’m more worried about the risks of her not getting exercise, not spending time with good friends, not going outside, spending too much time on screens, not being able to find her way around town independently, etc.
Mistake: Thinking that you can control your kids.
Reality: Your kids are going to make their own decisions!
Even if you believed that children are incapable of good judgement, can you watch them 100% of the time? Can you really control their behavior? NOPE! Even if you could manage to surveil and control your kid 100% of the time through high school, they will still eventually go off to make their own decisions–and in reality, after the age of about six or seven years old, kids already spend a lot of their time away from you. You can try, but the reality is that they are going to call their own shots. (Remember, that is a good thing, because you need to be busy calling your shots!)
Mistake: Thinking that kids are incapable.
Reality: Children are inherently scrappy and skillful.
Our kids are descended from millions of years of scrappy, surviving humans. They can, given opportunity, encouragement, and–where appropriate, guidance, do everything from climbing trees to cutting bagels to doing their homework to turning down drugs at a party.
Mistake: Expecting that protecting children from danger will make them feel safe.
Reality: Focusing on dangers makes children feel scared and anxious.
We are living during an epidemic of kid anxiety. While all of us, including kids, are sometimes anxious as a normal part of being human, severe anxiety has been increasing among the young since 2012. According to a Time Magazine article by Susanna Schrobsdorff, contributing factors include cell phones and social media, school pressures, and anxiety about terrorism, guns in schools, and the environment.
I think these are all important factors–but what about the mindset factor? What does it do to a kid’s confidence to communicate directly (or indirectly) that playing in the park by themselves is likely to result in death, or that they cannot be trusted and their room should be searched, or that college is dangerous and they should be tracked? And won’t a kid who is taught that she always needs to be protected by someone else be more likely to grow up scared? (By the way, I’m no stranger to anxiety issues in my home, read my blog on how four little words can help overcome anxiety here.)
The Reality Based View: Our Job Is To Help Our Kids Thrive
The official mission of New York City Guitar School is “to coach personal greatness, one lesson at a time.” Music for me is part of a healthy life, not an end in itself. I am not concerned if our students get into music school, become famous, or impress others. All I care about is that our students gain the confidence and joy that comes from practicing and mastering something, and the chance to spend time with and model on people who value themselves and others.** I believe that a sense of inner mastery helps inoculate kids from being affected by the judgments of the world and makes it easier for them to chart their own healthy path.
I’ve adopted this philosophy as a dad, too. I have decided that I am my kids’ biggest ally in their quest for autonomy. Since I believe that they will live most of their lives and make most of their decisions without me, I try to inoculate them from danger by giving them practice. And since I want them to make informed choices, I read the news to them starting at a young age, and I share sometimes brutal stories from our own family history about reversals and redemption. I also share the other side of reality–that they are in charge of their own life and they have the skills they need to thrive. My favorite saying is “you don’t have to be the best–you just have to do your best.”**
(**NOTE: By the way, it turns out that focusing on “doing your best” rather than “being successful” correlates really well with traditional “success” in both guitar students and children!)
My reality based parenting manifesto:
1. The world is full of opportunity and danger, so my child must be informed and engaged with the world.
2. Children are inherently scrappy and skillful. They have everything they need to thrive inside them, and they must be expected and encouraged to use those skills.
Good Parent? Bad Parent?
Every family is different. Miriam and I are lucky because we have arrived at a very similar parental viewpoint regarding safety.
And yes, we routinely let our eleven-year-old walk with her friends 1 1/2 miles and back to get pizza without an adult (helping make our house a top desired destination in her friend group). We also let our kids climb trees (even though one once fell and got stitches). And when my son, a new driver, ran into a curb and popped the tire, I said “Great, now you will change your first tire.” And when he ran over the extension cord with the lawn mower I said “Great, now you will learn to repair an electrical cord so that you can finish mowing the lawn.” Of course, we also forced our 8 year old to wear a life preserver in the deep cold lake, even though she cried and protested that she could swim just as well as her older siblings.
For our family, these are all good choices. Your choices might be different. But I want my kids to be capable, to not be threatened by failure, to know that non-lethal problems are, uh, non-lethal, and to have the ability to swim to shore or climb a fence in case of emergency.
I know there are a lot of challenges and heartbreaks and reversals in their future–and also a bunch of adventures and triumphs. I feel so relieved knowing that they have everything they need to be OK. And crazily, the more I try to make sure they can successfully live without me, the more they seem to like living with me…and the more I tell them that they are in charge of their own problems, the more open they seem to my advice.
Parenting isn’t easy, and it isn’t simple…but you and I are hanging in there! Let’s remember that we don’t have to get everything right–but if we do our best, we’ll do pretty well. Please, let me know if you have any thoughts or insights about today’s post, and THANK YOU for letting your child be part of NYC Guitar School.
On To Greatness,
Founder, NYC Guitar School
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