“Don’t be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.” ~ Emerson
Parents, put away the bubble wrap and the cotton wool, and let your kids run free, says a new study.
For those of us who have willingly and joyfully procreated, being a perfect parent is a quest for the holy grail. And shouldn’t protecting our young’uns from all the vicissitudes and risks of daily life be a part and parcel of that quest?
Well, not so much, says a new study recently published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. Conducted by University of British Columbia in Vancouver (UBC) and the Child & Family Research Institute at British Columbia’s Children’s Hospital, the study has concluded that letting our kids get risky-frisky outside of the domestic cocoon actually makes them healthier, sturdier and smarter.
Study co-author Mariana Brussoni, a developmental psychologist and injury prevention researcher at UBC, says:
“Engaging in risky play increased physical activity, it decreased sedentary behavior, and it promoted social health and behaviour. . . We found that play environments where children could take risks promoted increased play time, social interactions, creativity and resilience. These positive results reflect the importance of supporting children’s risky outdoor play opportunities as a means of promoting children’s health and active lifestyles.”
What is the risk quotient in children’s “risky outdoor play”?
“Risky play” does sound rather ominous, doesn’t it? What exactly is the UBC study team referring to when they say “risky outdoor play”? Well, it’s actually just the stuff that baby boomers, GenXers, and even the early Millennials spent most of their childhoods enjoying: climbing trees and jumping, sledding down a steep hill, venturing out into the neighbourhoods and exploring, and rough-and-tumble play fighting.
Yet it seems that these time-honoured play activities make today’s hands-on, “helicopter” parents quiver with fear and cry halt. Yes, the days when parents let their kids play outside to their heart’s content until dinner are long gone — and as the UBC study bears out, this is to the developmental detriment of our Generation Z and the newly arrived Alphas.
Other experts agree…
In his 2007 book, “No Fear: Growing Up In A Risk Adverse Society”, childhood researcher Tim Gill says that children today are living more constrained lives than previous generations and fewer are left alone to wander and explore. He believes that this in fact is shrinking children’s horizons because they are unable to get about in their neighbourhoods, play outside, and build important connections with the people and places around them.
Gill observes that the trend toward more protective parenting started in the 1990s, and has grown over the years, and he is concerned that parental overprotectiveness and constant supervision can lead to many problems for our kids down the road — obesity and coping issues being some of the major ones.
Why are we so overprotective of our kids today?
Is a risk-adverse society really at the root of helicopter parenting, as Tom Gill claims? Perhaps. But ultimately it is probably a combination of many realities of modern life. The emergence of the urban sprawl and a surge in frequent family relocations has diminished trust connections our parents and grandparents enjoyed with their community. Our busy streets with fast-driving cars also present a certain hazard.
But maybe some of the blame should also be laid at the feet of our media. Today’s news reports frequently focus on crime and accidents, exploring every harrowing story from near and far, in depth and from every possible angle. Hearing, seeing and reading about these tragic incidents may have contributed to our slightly paranoid mentality. The constant crime media coverage may have made us believe that accidents, murder, child abductions and other horrible things are happening all the time, and we need to be extra protective of our kids.
Other headlines of parents being charged with neglect by overzealous government officials compound this problem. Witness the recent story about a Maryland family investigated by Child Protective Services for letting their 10-year-old and 6-year-old walk home alone, and another one about a South Carolina woman being charged with felony child neglect for letting her 9-year-old child play alone in a park. These stories can have a chilling effect and deter parents from turning kids loose to play outside.
There may also be a cultural contributor to helicopter parenting, as pointed out by Jennifer Senior, the author of the best-selling “All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood”. Senior says that the helicoptering isn’t simply the result of parents being fearful for their children — it’s a way of showing off their parental virtues to everybody else. She writes:
“It’s become our new plumage, how we parent, peacockishly displayed on Facebook and in playgrounds and at birthday parties… The result is a culture of surveillance and judgment rather than compassion and collaboration, and frankly, it’s exhausting — nor is it doing anyone one lick of good.”
How much of our fear about children in danger is based on reality?
Jennifer Senior offers statistics that contradict the belief that accidents and crime involving children are ubiquitous. Abductions by strangers actually fell by 51% from 1997 to 2012. In 1935, there were just under 450 deaths for every 100,000 kids between ages 1 and 4. Now there are 30 deaths per 100,000 kids in that age range.
UBC study’s lead researcher, Dr. Brussoni, reports that in Canada, only two playground fatalities happened over the 30-year period from 1982 to 2011. And, according to Dr. Tremblay, the director of the Healthy Active Living and Obesity Research Group at the CHEO Research Institute, the risk of a child being exposed to a predator online is 500 times higher than on the street.
This negligible risk of harm associated with kids playing outside on their own is validated by the UBC study — it found no evidence of increased injuries or psychological harm from seemingly risky activities. What’s more, other studies have found that children given more leeway don’t seem to experience more injuries, but kids hovered over by their parents and caretakers may become more reckless if they feel their parents are there to ensure safety.
It’s time to let the kids climb the trees and wander out on their own
Maybe as a reaction to parental overprotectiveness gone amok, more and more parents are following the precepts of free-range parenting. This parental approach was popularized by American author Lenore Skenazyin her 2009 book “Free-Range Kids: Giving Our Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts with Worry”. In the book, Skenazy argues that overparenting and overprotection of kids limits children’s opportunity to mature properly into independent adults. The recent UBC study fully supports her thesis. Dr. Brussoni says:
“You can imagine that, if you get to explore with your own body — what you can do with it and how the world works — that’s much more instructive than being told by someone, for example, ‘If you fall out of a tree, that’s going to hurt. . . You know how far you can push your own body.”
She believes that kids who are micromanaged may be getting the message that “there are lots of dangers in the world; you don’t trust me to be able to keep myself safe or manage myself in this world, and I need you to keep me safe.”
Nora Spinks, chief executive of the Banier Institute of the Family says that physical activity and the opportunity to assess risk is essential to children’s brain development. “We need kids who can assess risk, can manage it appropriately, and can respond when things don’t go well,” she says.
Children are quite capable with guidance from adults to determine whether they can do something or not, says Lisa Lamarre, an early childhood education professor at Algonquin College. “If parents are too overprotective. . . and too worried about safety all the time, children naturally won’t want to take healthy risks, not risks to hurt themselves, but healthy risks,” she says. That’s unfortunate, because risk-taking calls for the exercise of judgment and builds up resilience.
The physical benefits of more adventurous play outside are a no-brainer – being outside is just naturally conducive to being more active. But the UBC study also found that more adventurous, autonomous play contributes to the children’s social and mental development. “You often hear parents in the playground saying, ‘No, get down! No, that’s too high!'” Brussoni says. “But it’s important to give your kids some space to explore and make decisions, and learn to problem-solve.”
When there is no adult in charge, Dr. Brussoni explains, “children learn how to negotiate with each other, how to get along, and how to make their own rules.” Even “rough-and-tumble” activities, like wrestling or play-fighting, may help kids learn to get along.
Of course, the free-range parenting movement and the UBC study recommendations apply to risky play within reasonable bounds. It does not apply to being ok with your 10-year old leaving the house for a couple of days, or jumping off a bridge, or driving a car. The study stresses that parents must always assess a child’s developmental stage and maturity level vis a vis the level of risk in the intended play activity.
So, what’s the upshot of the UBC study and other similar research? Justine Roberts, founder of Mumsnet.com, an online forum for mothers, suggests that as parents, “we will have to be brave and allow our children to take physical risk because, within reason, that is the way that they learn.” As Dr. Tremblay sums it up, “The biggest risk is keeping your kids indoors.”