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Risky business

Life. It’s a risky business. As a parent we can spend endless hours worrying about all the ways that life might find to trip up, stall or hurt our children. A very lovely friend of mine wrote a rather beautiful blog post about the fears of being a mother for the first time “knuckles white on the pushchair” etc. As children grow up the number of things to potentially worry about increases: falling over, banging their heads, eating something they shouldn’t, running into a road, falling off a climbing frame, falling out with friends, being bullied, being offered drugs, getting drunk, failing their exams……… etc etc etc. The genuinely “safest” way to ensure that nothing bad could ever happen to our children would be to literally wrap them in cotton wool, keep them in a padded room with no heights, no sharp edges, no potentially threatening other people, no friends to fall out with, and only giving them hermetically sealed and sterilized things to eat and drink. Except we can all see immediately that that wouldn’t be “safe” at all, it would be miserable, cruel and incredibly damaging.

We are treading a tight rope. We are trying to find the line between keeping our children as ‘safe’ as possible, whilst giving them as many opportunities as possible to grow, experience things, laugh, love and live.

As parents, one of our main jobs is risk assessment. We are at all times weighing up the pros and cons, thinking about what is ‘acceptable risk’ and what is ‘too risky’. That weighing up is not a static thing either, it is a constantly changing tide: as our children grow older new challenges appear to confront them, new potential dangers loom on the horizon, but their skills and abilities to navigate challenges also develop. We have to work hard to keep up and it can be exhausting.

For me, one of the most vivid examples of that changing picture of weighing up risks and balances is the walk to school. We live in a house about a mile from school, a perfect, comfortable walking (or scooting) distance away. Between us and school there are a few side roads, but the majority is on a perfectly serviceable pavement, with a pedestrian side and a cyclist side, on a main road. It is a busy road, officially only 30 mile an hour speed limit on the bit we walk down, but that is not always stuck to, and there are some parts where the pavement narrows. We moved into this house when Lucy was 2 and just starting to want to leave the pushchair and walk. I would hold her hand, but she wasn’t always keen on it. I insisted. As she got older we started scooting to school. She walked at 10 months, has always wanted to be on the go, and was a whizz on a scooter pretty quickly too! Having Charlie to watch and keep up with, and also being probably the most naturally coordinated of the 4 of us in the house, she takes to physical tasks quickly. When to let her scoot all the way? How much did I need to keep her on a ‘lead’ (metaphorical and literal in this case, we had one of those parent cord things attached to the scooter) and how much should I let her go?

I decided quite quickly to let her go. We spent a lot of time reinforcing the rules about stopping for roads well back from the edge, staying on the off side of the path away from the cars, getting off to walk across roads, not getting too far ahead. Every time my heart would jump into my throat as I watched her careering off with her brother. 98% of the time she was fine. And then came the 2%. By now aged 3, they scooted along happily as they always did. We stopped at the traffic lights to cross, as we always did. She raced her brother to press the button to make the green man appear, as she always did. She stopped back from the curb, as she always did and got off. And then Charlie said something to me. I turned to look at him, on my other side, and Lucy decided waiting was boring, and pushed her scooter into the road. Luckily, there was a car coming on our side, but nothing on the other. The car swerved and braked, I grabbed the scooter and hauled her back. Nothing bad happened. Except I was terrified and she burst into tears.

We both learnt a useful lesson. She learnt that there was a reason why we made her stop and wait for the green man. I learnt that demonstrating to her that I trusted her was important but putting my foot in front of her front wheel just in case she had a lapse of concentration was also important. She has never done it since. I recognize that this story could have had a much worse ending. The car didn’t have to swerve far, I did catch her very quickly, and the chances of any significant harm where, with hindsight, slim but nevertheless, something terrible could have happened.

Would I be doing Lucy a service if I never let her ride her scooter again? No. Would I be keeping her safe from harm in the long term if I never let her learn about the road and never taught her road safety skills? No. Releasing an 11 year old into the world to get themselves to secondary school on the bus if they have never had to learn to negotiate roads and traffic would be an incredibly irresponsible thing to do. The damage to her fitness, her sense of self-esteem and self-worth from never having been trusted to keep herself safe would also have been significant. Not letting children learn, not letting them make mistakes, is dangerous too. We may think we are protecting our children, but actually, we can often be giving them the message “I am protecting you because I don’t think you are strong enough or competent enough to handle this”.

Did I get the judgement wrong on that occasion? Yes. But only a little bit. She is now an incredibly competent scooter. Now aged 4 people comment on how well she negotiates roads, how sensible she is at stopping at a safe distance from road edges, at listening to instructions. I have made her safer and healthier in the long run by letting her scoot, teaching her to do it safely and have fun. But should I have put my foot in front of her wheel to stop her from being able to have a lapse of judgement and get impatient waiting for the green man? Yes. I don’t need to now, but I did then. That is the risk assessment we do all day, every day as parents. When do I put my foot in the way, and when do I trust her not to need my foot? As a parent, only you know your child and the situation best and can make that judgement. And you might get it wrong sometimes. It is good to take the foot away in a situation where if your child does make a mistake, the outcome won’t be catastrophic.

On that occasion, I should have been a bit more cautious. We can practice taking the foot away in easier, safer places first. I had to put the foot back for a while. What was important was that I didn’t make too big a deal out of doing so. We need to play up the successes, help our children see their progress and feel our trust. Don’t keep reminding them of the foot. Put your foot back when you aren’t so sure, but point out to them times when they have got it on their own without the need of your foot. I got it wrong that time and I was lucky it worked out OK. But she’s got it now. And if I had kept my foot there forever, she might not have learnt to do it for herself.

Best wishes, Helen

Dr Helen Care

A Confident Start - advice and therapy for parents and young people

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