As I go longer and deeper into motherhood and through the clients I see, I become increasingly aware of the protection spectrum we must navigate as parents. We should protect our kids (I mean that would be up there near the top of the parenting manual if they were giving those out) but then we shouldn’t go too far and overprotect them. When they are tiny babies, dependent on us for every need, that protection brief is a lot clearer than when they are 6 year olds skateboarding down the steep hill, 12 year olds not being picked for something or 16 year olds, well just being 16 year olds! We shouldn’t be bubble wrapping our kids nor sending them to the wolves. Meeting that sweet spot on the protection spectrum can be rather challenging.
As parents, we generally want to control for pain. We don’t want our kids getting physically or emotionally hurt. So, we can and we should run some protection interference to lower the probability of fallout. Potential risks are inherent in pretty much everything we do but we don’t want to be going all badass risky on those risks. Things like wearing a helmet, putting on a seatbelt, wearing sunblock are non-negotiables. Finding creative ways to manage their safety is a good thing; like making sure they contact us when they have arrived somewhere, having a code word for when they need help or simply putting cushions in place when they are jumping off stuff because they do jump off stuff. We need to teach them from early on to trust themselves so that their gut can help guide them in making good decisions and at least help them recognise when their choices have not been ideal. Whether they are driving a motor bike, their tricycle or nursing a wounded ego, we need to parent with a balance of support and boundaries. I like the analogy that Gavin Keller uses of parents needing to be like a rock climbing belayer (note he doesn’t say we actually have to rock climb, thankfully). A belayer is the person who controls the safety rope for the climber. We need to be our children’s steady base while letting them have rope to explore. We need to be interfering with enough input that holds both them and us in mind but not too much that it suffocates, stifles and stops them from exploring their world.
In the name of love
Let’s not kid our focus on protecting our kids comes from a good place. However, when we are erring on the side of constant- watchful-eye-at-the -ready -for- potential- danger- ninja -style, it can be helpful to think about the roots of this behaviour. For some parents, they hold a very real fear of perceived dire consequences from what they perceive to be failures. “What will happen if she doesn’t win the race?”/ “His future will be totally ruined if he doesn’t get an A on the test.”/“She will be an outcast if she doesn’t get invited to that sleepover”/ “He could break his leg if I let him climb that tree.” These parents jump to extreme conclusions that anticipate negative and damaging consequences. For some parents, they are overcompensating for how they were parented as children either by uninvolved or overinvolved parents. Consequently, they either try to replicate or distance themselves from their parents’ style. For some parents, just like their offspring, they are susceptible to peer pressure. When these parents know that someone else’s father went to speak to the coach or the teacher, they too feel they need to get involved without considering if this is really the best way to support their own child. Whilst all these parents hold their children so closely in their hearts, often fear is an unrecognised driver on their parenting journey and fear ignored tends to grow.
Why we need to step back?
If we don’t step back, our children don’t get to fall or fail and they don’t get to learn. Some of the most successful people in the world are the people who have also failed the most. If we continually manipulate and control our children’s world, how do they get to gain a sense of self efficacy and mastery in their lives? If we are constantly trying to keep them in a happy bubble, how hard will it be when they are faced with disappointments? And when we hold anxieties of our own we tend to unintentionally project these onto our children. As Brene Brown says, “We live in a vulnerable world.” Accidents happen, unforeseen consequences occur and hearts do get broken. We cannot control our children’s world. At best, we can help them manage it in a resilient way.
What do we do when they do fall?
They will fall and they will fail and it will suck both for them and for us. Sometimes we will need to pause, to breathe, to hold our own hearts in knowing that this is hard for us. We will need to think about what this triggers in us before we go and project our stuff onto them. Then we can start by acknowledging their pain and allow the space for them to express what they feel. We can help them know that we see their experience of what has happened, even when we don’t necessarily agree with it or understand it entirely, we can still reflect it as their experience. We will have to stop ourselves from our often-instinctive move to try and fix and distract from the pain because that’s what our heart often guides us to do. We want to excavate the bad feelings and dump them in a galaxy far far away. We can help put things in perspective and talk through their fears and their worst-case scenarios. We can help them to problem solve about the best way forward so that they have some control, with our guidance about possibilities. And when they inevitably fall again, we can remind them of a time before that was hard and how they got through it without being crushed.
I think our role, albeit a tricky one without the benefit of a manual, is to help our kids navigate the risks whilst trying to ensure they don’t take the biggest risk of all, in missing out on the endlessly rich experiences and opportunities out there.