Protect Your Kids From the Danger of Taking No Risks

Hypervigilant parenting may insulate your child from short-term risk, but it sets them up for long-term problems.

It’s summer and the kids are driving you crazy. They are so needy, and messy, and why won’t they just play quietly? When the kids come home for summer it can be a nightmare for your productivity. Of course it’s a great opportunity for quality experiences and vacations, but at some point you’ll have to take care of things – maybe your own health.

The temptation is to turn baby-sitting duties over to the video games and cartoons while you guiltily sneak in a home workout or an overdue email. Sending your kids to the park across the street seems a case for parent neglect and reckless endangerment in this age of media-induced paranoia. However, for your child’s growth, health, and development there is no greater gift you can give them than the room to explore, play, and discover free from your ever-present safety net.

I’m not advocating letting a 5-year-old walk through city streets alone, and I certainly don’t think that you open up the world to a second grader without precaution or check-ins. I’m saying know your environment. If you live in a small town or suburb, teach your kid how to walk across the street to the park or local school. Go with them at first and reemphasize all of the safety procedures (looking both ways, etc.) you’ve taught them their entire life. Wean them off dependence and empower them to be active guides of their own life. Find a park where you can read while your kids play and get settled close enough, but not so close that you are tempted to watch them the whole time. Seek out friends who your child could play with outside. Open up your backyard to a world of free play and exploration without constant check-ins. I know your fear is compounded every time you turn on the news, but this is only news because it’s rare. Furthermore, the cost of not letting the kids play is much bigger.

An empty playground in the summer time is a crime against childhood. [Photo courtesy Pixabay]

The Kids Need to Go Play

Children need play. Childhood obesity and juvenile diabetes are at record highs and free play is a fundamental part of the child’s cognitive development. Play is a child’s natural inclination and it may be their most formative activity. According to Dr. Jane Hewes, chair of the Early Childhood Education Program at Grant MacEwan College, free play is the building block for the “intellectual, social, physical, and emotional skills necessary for success in school and in life.” It fosters childhood creativity, and develops skills in abstract thinking and problem solving. Dr. Hewes goes so far as to link different types of free play with the specific academic and social skills they develop. For example, building things correlates with math skills, scientific reasoning, and problem solving skills. Children need the room for undirected play without the rules and guidelines of adult society.

Unfortunately, we’re losing spaces for this play to take place. The monkey bars and swings are coming down in favor of less challenging and safer (aka boring) playground equipment. We’ve become so afraid that life will happen that we don’t see the risk in not offering our children the opportunities to be children. What’s more, less of the real estate is kid friendly. In her book Kith, Jay Griffiths shows that places for children to play have decreased nearly 90 percent since 1970. She asserts, “today’s children are enclosed in school and home, enclosed in cars to shuttle between them, enclosed by fear, by surveillance and poverty and enclosed in rigid schedules of time.” It’s been said that it takes a village to raise a child. It seems clear that our villages are failing badly.

Accept a Little Risk Now, or Big Risks Later

We live in a world where every cut “might need stitches” and where parents equip 5-year-olds with cell phones, “just in case.” Our nation was made great based on the principle of freedom, but freedom comes with risk. Life is about moving, playing, jumping, and exploring. These activities are riskier in the short term than sitting and watching TV, but the long-term costs are far less. What is the risk of sedentary lifestyle? Increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, deep veined thrombosis, orthopedic issues, and the list goes on. What are the risks of soda or pop tarts for breakfast? Kids don’t feel as good, they don’t perform as well in school, and their habits set them up for futures of pain, poor health, and poor self-esteem. These fears seem to pale in comparison to the news story about the kid who hurt himself on a trampoline, but given the choice, I’m going to play crack the egg.

It is the same with adults. My wife recently dropped a 35-pound plate on her toe. Now she’s in a boot for 8 weeks. Everyone’s response when they see her is a sardonic “that’s why I don’t lift.” A week after that accident, she was back in the weight room, boot and all, fighting to stay on track. She’d take the same risk a million times, because she knows what physical training has done for her. It’s this spirit that brings her success and happiness and this commitment to exercise which will keep her strong, healthy, and happy late into our lives.

Likewise, I’ve had parents approach me fearful for their freshmen to begin training with me. I always tell them that they should be more afraid not to have their child strength training. The year before I worked with our football program, we had 76 injuries that resulted in athletes missing a week or more in our football program. Two years later, the program had only 29. The weight-room, a place with obvious risks, has far more ability to enrich your life than do harm.

There are bright spots in this uphill battle against play and risk. Ohio based Strength Coach, Grant “Rufus” Gardis, offers training for young athletes that place emphasis on free play. His 10-to 12-year-old class starts each session with free play. They choose a game, make the rules, and play with no interference by Gardis. Though he has plans for bodyweight exercise, plyometrics, technique training of the Olympic lifts, and running, if the free play keeps an intense spirit with intense effort they will play for the entire 90-minute session. He uses play to de-stress and set the tone for great work. If play is spirited than it does more for these athletes development than anything else. More trainers and PE teachers should consider building opportunities for free play into workouts.

Send Them Out to Play

From frequent feedings, to noise, to constant badgering for something to entertain them, kids can be an efficiency nightmare. So when they are finally drawn into the aura of TV or video games, it’s easy to thank your lucky stars for these moments of solitude and let them fall into the trance. These conveniences have a place for youth and I’m not here to demonize. Still, I implore you, let your kids play this summer. Let your 8-year-old walk down the road to the park. There will be 20 paranoid parents there already.

I know what you’re thinking: trampoline, monkey bars, child abductors. I have to be vigilant in protecting my son from this dangerous world. As Swedish diplomat and Nobel Prize winner, Dag Hammarskjöld said, “It is in playing safe that we create a world of utmost insecurity.” It’s time you attack the real threat to your children: the sedentarism that is a threat to their health, happiness, and development into creative guides of their own life. 

Help your kids move more this summer:

Athletic Training for Pre-Adolescents

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