For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.
2 Timothy 1:7
If you are thirty plus, you may have walked to school and while there whirled around in a flying merry-go-around, one of the playground apparatus banned for safety concerns. You likely biked unsupervised around the neighborhood without a helmet, climbed trees, played in the dirt, and worked out your own conflicts in childhood games. If you are younger, you probably did very few, if any, of these.
Then if you’re my age, the differences are even greater. I grew up in Oregon, ten miles from Clatskanie – population 1200. My siblings and I loved to swim in the summer months for which we had two options. We could walk two miles down the wooded road and swim unsupervised in the wide, swift Columbia River OR we could bike eight miles further on the same narrow, winding, hilly road to the community pool, which we would accomplish on well worn, ill-fitting bikes.
No supervision. No floating devices. No helmets. No cell phones.
TO BE CLEAR: I do not consider this type of risk to be wise! I just think kids need to risk more than they presently do.
We knew the risk of getting injured was a possibility.
So did our parents. But facing risk was considered a part of growing up. We were expected to make wise decisions while we managed our own way through difficult situations. While I understand today’s sincere aim to protect kids, and appreciate many of the safety regulations in place, I am apprehensive that we are failing to ready our children for a world that is far from risk-free. Kids today are given little opportunity to govern themselves or to figure things out on their own, or even make simple decisions for themselves. They are trained to be risk averse. It serves to alleviate the parent’s own anxieties but what are the consequences for our children down the road?
Will overly managed kids grow up without learning adequate skills of self management for themselves?
Will overly protected kids wind up at greater risk – handicapped – down the road?
Current research certainly points to a resounding YES to both of these questions. True danger exists in the world but we do our kids great harm when we don’t equip them to personally handle it. We are deeply afraid to let our kids become independent.
Consider the following statement by Tim Elmore: “Psychologists in Europe have discovered that if a child doesn’t play outside and is never allowed to experience a skinned knee or broken bone, they frequently have phobias as adults. Interviews with young adults who never played on jungle gyms reveal they are fearful of normal risks and commitment. The truth is, kids need to fall a few times to learn it is normal; teens need to break up with a boyfriend or girlfriend to appreciate the emotional maturity that lasting relationships require. Pain is actually a necessary teacher. Consider your body for a moment. If you didn’t feel pain, you could burn yourself or step on a nail and never do anything about the damage and infection until it was too late. Pain is a part of health and maturity.”
Mental health professionals have coined a new syndrome: “High Arrogance, Low Self-Esteem.“ Kids with this pattern come across as smug and haughty but this is merely their outward appearance that hides a hollow confidence. Confidence is mere fluff when it is derived from winning in video games or watching Youtube videos rather than in achieving something challenging and meaningful in the real world.
With these thoughts in mind, our family has set out to teach our 4 – 7 year old grandchildren how to ride bikes.
With their perfectly-sized bikes and shiny helmets strapped on (I am a big fan of helmets and suitable bikes!), we now regularly venture out into the neighborhood to teach them the skills they need to ride independently. At first, they resisted the idea. The hills. The curves. The cars. To them, they all represented danger. Then when the moment arrived when one of them was deemed ready to remove the training wheels, anxiety definitely erupted. “I am not ready.” “Not today.” “I’m going to fall” to which we calmly agreed, “yes you probably will.” Courage we remind them is not about the absence of fear or risk but about facing these fears head on.
One by one they are accomplishing it. Joey’s arms and legs are marked with evidence of his growing courage and resilience. (He wears the scrapes and bruises with honor!) In the first week, Kate fell onto the side of the road and came up covered in mud, grass and even a few scratches. Jude, who started out at a snail’s pace, is discovering that speeding down hills is exhilarating. He along with Haddie are the next ones to tackle riding without training wheels. No longer are the hills or curves scary; they are learning how to ride safely as cars drive by; and they are having a great deal of fun while exercising.
Kids gain confidence when they learn new skills and press through challenges. Doing so stretches and grows not only their brains but their fortitude and resilience as well. Confidence found any other way is merely a facade. Pretense. According to author Jean Twenge, “American Culture has become increasingly focused on the illusion of greatness rather than greatness itself.” To be timid, anxious and afraid is not the life God has in mind for anyone. To be truly great however requires that one must also risk greatly. In a society that has become perversely afraid of risk, no wonder our children turn in larger measure to the virtual world in an attempt to satisfy this innate need to dare and to risk.
Inspiration for this post was derived in part from Tim Elmore in his dynamic blog on February 15, 2013 titled Three Huge Mistakes We Make Leading Kids….and How to Correct Them.