When my son was three, my husband gave him a knife.
He gave him one because at the time our son loved watching his dad pull out his pocket knife and use it to cut pieces of rope or a slice of apple. And he wanted one of his own.
My husband is the tough, outdoorsy sort. So it’s not surprising that he found a little red pocket knife for our son, one that fitted nicely in his three-year-old hand—it’s surprising that I let him keep it.
Because in the past I wouldn't have. I would have said three was too young for knives, that thirteen would be better or seventeen. I used to think that was my job as a mother—to keep my children safe.
‘Nice idea darling,’ I would have said to my husband, ‘but times have changed.’ And I would have been right about that, times have changed.
Safety is a much higher priority for mothers’ today than it was in the past. Germ covers for shopping trolleys, knee pads for crawlers and digital heart-rate monitors are a few examples of the multitude of products that promise to help us in our mission to keep our children safe and dry.
Today’s mums like playgrounds with fences and indoor play centres full of foam mats with no sharp edges. And we like to speak loudly to our children and tell them to stop, put that stick down and be careful.
Because we believe good mothers do everything to keep their child safe. But is that actually true?
Well, I used to think it was. But now I know it isn’t.
It’s more complicated than that—here’s why.
Most of the time we don’t notice it, but we live in a society that is obsessed with risk aversion. We think it’s normal to prevent risk at all costs. Especially risks that involve children.
And we are so focused on banning risky activities; we fail to notice all the benefits we lose when we do so.
Take Thredbo’s recent decision to ban tobogganing at it’s NSW Ski fields. Sure, speeding down the ice on a piece of plastic involves risks, and some of them are serious. But tobogganing is also very good for children.
The best thing about it is all the exercise they get, dragging their toboggan up a snowy hill, over and over again. A pretty significant benefit when you consider the fact that two-thirds of Australian children don’t get enough physical activity and 1 in 4 is overweight or obese.
We are also not as good at assessing risk as we think we are.
When our child is up in a tree, higher than we want them to be, we have a strong response. The idea that they might fall consumes us, we can’t stop thinking about it, and we can even feel physically sick.
But most of us don’t feel like that when we strap our children into the back of a car.
And when we send our children to school to sit in a chair for most of the day, we don’t even consider the risk of inactivity. Even though researchers have found inactivity to be responsible for 7% of the global burden of disease for type-2 diabetes and 10% for both breast and colon cancer. And that overall physical inactivity causes about 9% of deaths worldwide.
And then there’s the fact that allowing children to take risks also does something pretty surprising—it makes them safer.
In 2017 when Australian researchers studied what happened when educators started lighting campfires in their Newcastle preschool. They were surprised that the preschoolers began talking more about fire safety. And even incorporated ideas about safety into their dramatic play.
And a 2015 study from Belgium found that when children aged 3 to 8 participated in 14 weeks of risky play, their ability to detect risks increased. And so did their self-esteem.
When us Mums take over the job of keeping our children safe. We take away our child’s responsibility and autonomy.
But when we allow our children to take age-appropriate risks, we open up a conversation about safety. They understand that we trust them to use their judgement. And we expect them to be responsible and to be aware of their surroundings.
And when we do that we find out our children are much more capable or assessing risk and keeping themselves safe than we thought.
That’s what happened with the pocket knife. We let our son have one. There were conditions, of course. It lived with Dad’s knife out of reach and was used under supervision.
Our son learnt it was a tool, not a toy. He understood he had a responsibility to use it safely. And he loved it. Opening seed pods and whittling sticks made outdoor play more engaging, and his confidence grew.
Now I stand on the other side. And I know how hard it can be to be the mum who lets your child do risky things.
Last week a friend and I took a walk along a local bike track. She pushed her baby in the pram while our four other children rode their bikes along beside us.
Towards the end of the walk our two eldest, both five, decided to ride as fast as they could to the end of the path. It was quite a long way, and at times they were so far ahead we couldn’t quite see them around the corner. But they are sensible kids, we trusted them to keep themselves safe.
An older lady, walking the other direction along the path, noticed our kids before she saw us. By the time she got over to us, she had a stern look on her face, ‘Your children are very far ahead you know’ she said.
But I just smiled.
Because I no longer feel it’s my job to protect my children from all potential harm. It’s to raise them to be confident, responsible and brave.
I’ve decided I’m going to give my children the freedom to take risks. I’m going to let them do adventurous things.
Because in twelve years my son will get behind the wheel of a car, without me at his side. And we both need to be ready for that.
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