This is the time of year, when families are out and about, that parents tend to worry most about their children’s safety. We all want to keep our children safe, but it’s vital that they’re allowed to take some risks too. Discover how to get the balance right.
Forget climbing trees and paddling in the stream. In today's ‘cotton wool culture’, children are rarely left to play freely and learn from life's hard knocks. Many parents have a ‘worst case scenario’ attitude, even if the risk is just a scraped knee.
Parents worry about unsupervised activities outside the home, like going to the local shops. Climbing trees, which was once a rite of passage for most children, is now rarely encouraged and some children aren’t even allowed to play chase in case they fall over and hurt themselves. The biggest safety worry for 1 in 3 parents, according to research, is accidents outside the home. Actually, accidents in the home are far more common and boys under four years old are most at risk.
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) has voiced concerns that parents may be becoming too risk-averse. Many experts believe that kids should be allowed to bruise and cut themselves as they can learn from minor accidents.
Local authorities have also been accused of over-the-top precautions. One explanation for these extreme measures is that Britain is becoming more litigious. Many public services are afraid of being sued for even a minor scrape.
Children who learn to make their own decisions rather than blindly obeying others will be better-equipped to resist the pressures they’ll face as they get older.
Handling risk sensibly
Have plenty of conversations with your children to help them consider how they’d manage various scenarios. For example:
What do you think will happen if you do that/don't do that?
Who could you ask for help?
If your child is especially cautious, think about your parenting style. Are you interfering or enabling? Do you tell or suggest? Interfering can produce fearful children who lack confidence and decision-making skills. Risks are great learning opportunities, so override your fears, discuss problems and don't rush in to fix everything!
Encourage your children as they try new skills. Take a step back and let them solve problems independently, even if it takes ages! As their role model, take positive risks in your stride. You’ll send a powerful message that sometimes it’s okay to feel unsure and make mistakes.
Some children can seem particularly reckless, particularly in a physical way. As parents, your natural urge is to try to curb them but remember that rough-and-tumble play actually helps children learn to control their emotions and bodies. They learn their limits as well as others’, so they don't lose control and hurt anyone. Child-proof your home, keep your sense of humour, and save battles for when your child's safety really is at stake.
WHAT RISKS SHOULD CHILDREN EXPERIENCE?
• developing bodily co-ordination.
• learning to manage natural risks like ice.
• learning to use tools and equipment safely.
• developing reasoning skills.
• learning to negotiate and to say no.
• learning to handle success, failure, boredom, pleasure and anxiety.
• trying new things.
• problem-solving, creativity and resourcefulness.
Good and bad risks
Here are some more acceptable and unacceptable risks:
• Leave them safely unattended in a buggy or playpen for two. minutes so they get used to you being out of sight occasionally.
• Let them try going upstairs. Stay right behind and teach them to hold onto the bannister.
• Anything sharp, hot, electric or poisonous.
• Leaving them alone for more than a few minutes.
• Exploring in the great outdoors! Ignore mess and dirt, but stay nearby when they try to eat soil or a worm!
• Some unsupervised play - stay within earshot if possible.
• Unsupervised use of knives or scissors.
• Plugging in electrical devices.
Five-to-seven year olds
• Walking to the local shop, with you following behind. Let them handle small amounts of money and work out the change.
• Helping to chop soft things like bananas, or cracking an egg, after you’ve done a demo!
• Surfing the Internet or watching television without guidance.
• Sleepovers when you’ve not met the host family.
Never discuss frightening news stories in front of children – it’s been shown to cause them anxiety.
Stranger danger in perspective
Even when children are supervised, parents worry about the adults who are present. Why are we increasingly afraid of strangers? Research suggests that most parents feel the world has become a more threatening place since their childhood, and that the biggest safety concern for over half of parents is strangers and paedophiles. The fact is that the number of children who are threatened by in this way is miniscule.
Charity Parentline Plus recommends that you have ongoing, gentle conversations about stranger danger, but don’t make your child frightened…rehearse with your child what to do if a stranger approaches them. Younger children benefit from role play and repeated conversations, like: ‘Hi there! Would you like an ice-cream?’ or ‘Can you help me? I've lost my dog. Could you help me find him?’ Once children are old enough, make sure they know who, when, where and how to get help. Try not to project your fears onto your children. Being calm is the key to preventing them from becoming frightened themselves. Never discuss frightening news stories in front of children – it’s been shown to cause them anxiety. Keep things in perspective: the world isn’t full of nastier people, we’re just more aware of them. Abductions by strangers may attract media attention, but they’re extremely rare.