As I watched my four children set off together to explore upstream along a rugged creek through remote wilderness my heart sang. Fostering a love of exploration and discovery of the natural world in my children is something fundamental to my hopes as a parent. I remained at our picnic spot while the kids clambered over boulders and fallen trees, waded across pools of water and through a thick tangle of roots and ferns and mud. In the dense forest they were quickly out of sight, and after a while, out of earshot too.
And yet, at this point, I had to consciously quell the flutter of parental anxiety I felt. I had to remind myself that all of my children, even the twins (recently turned four) are well equipped with the tools they need to manage and evaluate the potential risks associated with this kind of environment, and that they have the capacity to deal with the challenges and hazards they may have encountered along the way.
Instead of joining them as they explored the creek, we waited for them to return and reflected on how critical it is to provide opportunities, such as this, to let our children rise to challenges – whether physical, social, intellectual or emotional – and in so doing develop strategies and skills to safely navigate the risks they face.
In today’s risk-averse culture, the tendency to want to ‘bubble wrap’ our children to protect them from harm is not necessarily the approach that will deliver the best outcome in the long term. And while risk-taking is now understood as an inevitable and indeed fundamental part of healthy development, it is often much harder as a parent to consciously allow your own child to be exposed to these risks.
While the urge to ‘hover’ is instinctive to parents (and is sometimes necessary – clearly especially when children are smaller), a more practical way to guide your kids away from real harm may be to equip them with the skills and judgment they need to safely manage risk themselves.
It is only very recently that the twins have joined their older brothers on these types of forays into the bush. As they have grown, we have watched and assisted and provided advice as they have gradually developed an awareness and understanding of their own limits and abilities, of potential hazards, and of the consequences of their actions.
As parents, it is difficult to balance our natural tendency to want to protect our children from harm, with the clear benefits of letting our children engage with risk. It is hard for many of us to let go.
Children need lots of opportunities for exploration and experimentation. They need to make mistakes, to falter, and to fall. They also sometimes need to fail, and we need to let them. In so doing they develop autonomy, confidence, and the ability to make reasoned choices. They learn how to evaluate, how to cope with the unexpected, how to manage change and how to rise to the myriad of challenges their lives will present them with.
When the motely crew of adventurers returned they were scratched and soaking wet, the twins had had a bit of trouble getting over various obstacles, and had said they wanted to come back a couple of times. Nevertheless they had remained adventuring with their brothers. This was all forgotten when they described their discoveries: “a moss bed”, “a temple”, “an island”, a fairy waterfall”, “an Indiana Jones swing”, as well as emptying their pockets full of feathers, rocks and unusual leaves.
They stayed for a sausage and were off again, further this time, to see what lay beyond.