Do as I say, not as I fear

Am I teaching my kids to be afraid?

As a parent, I want to protect my kids from anything that might hurt them. It breaks my heart every time one of them falls and scrapes a knee or bruises a forehead (which my son, 2, does often). So all too often I find myself telling them not to do something. In other words, to be afraid of some yet-unknown and probably highly unlikely catastrophe may befall them if they continue what they’re doing.

“Don’t climb on that. You might fall.” But it’s a couch and carpet. Slim chance of a trip to the hospital from that.

“Slow down. You’ll knock over your little brother.” Girl, 5, knocks him over all the time. Sometimes accidentally. He bounces back up and generally seems to enjoy it.

“You can’t do that by yourself. You might…” Who knows what might happen. But whatever it is, it probably won’t be good, right?

It’s gotten to the point that both kids barely even hear us bark such dire warnings anymore and, as young kids tend to do, they just go about their day doing whatever the hell they want. Meanwhile, their parents’ frustration rises to the boiling point because, “they just won’t listen to me.” Then, something does happen and one of the kids ends up crying and that frustration mixes with the fear and combusts into shouts and corner sitting and more tears.

This may be the evolutionary reason why some species eat their young. But I could have that wrong...

We just want to protect our kids. We just want them to grow up into responsible adults capable of surviving in an uncertain world. And that’s noble. But the message we end up projecting in these situations is, “See, I was afraid something bad would happen and it did. So you should be fearful too.” Then we reinforce this notion with emotionally charged outbursts and disciplinary action.

And I worry that that’s what they remember. That they won’t remember the bijillions of other moments throughout the day that they were just doing what kids do and nothing terrible happened. Yet, in reality, that’s the majority of life. There’s very little to be scared of. Very little that will actually hurt them in any serious way. Scraped knees and bumped heads are part of growing up.

Experience is a far better teacher than mom and dad can ever hope to be.

Kids have to experience the world, and (most) all of its risks. They have to fall off things to understand gravity and the sharp stop at the bottom of a fall. They have to try new things, fail, and try again to build resilience. They have to accomplish hard things - probably failing, falling, and sometimes getting hurt physically and/or emotionally along the way - to build confidence.

I know this, but damn is it hard to back off. I want to protect my kids. But I also want them to grow up confident, resilient, and (mostly) fearless. But lately I feel I’m failing at the latter.

But then yesterday happened. After Girl ended up in fearful tears from her first bike riding lesson sans-training wheels, I was astounded when she led her little brother on a bug, snake, and worm hunting expedition by turning over logs in the un-split firewood pile. She really wanted to find a salamander but such critters would be a rare find on the dry ridge upon which we live. But I didn’t tell her that. No way was I going to quell the excitement of the hunt.

With giddy excitement they repeatedly brought us earthworms to examine, noted (but left alone) several rather large, hirsute spiders and one garter snake. I made sure to attempt to mirror their excitement and encourage their exploration. The natural world is absolutely something I don’t want them to fear.

As a parent, I have no idea what I’m doing most of the time. But I’m trying. And every now and then, I get a win in the form of an earthworm wriggling on a small dirty hand. Like any good experimenter, I do my best to assess the available information and apply it accordingly, keeping what works and modifying what doesn’t. After reading Grit by Angela Duckworth and Mindset by Carol Dweck, I’m convinced that I need to focus more on cultivating confidence and resilience in my kids and less on protecting them from the unlikely travesties that I invent in my head all the time. In another generation or two, we may look back and consider helicopter parenting another form of neglect. Projecting fear, I’m afraid (like what I did there?), does more harm than good.

I’ve been careful never to project fear of the natural world. And it's worked fairly well. Both of my kids willingly hold bugs and earthworms, turn over logs to see what critters live underneath, and happily join me anytime we venture into the woods. #DadWin

But in other areas, I’ve failed miserably. Our fear of kids falling off things has been so strong that getting my daughter to ride a bike may require a professional therapist. We’ve taught her that new is scary and to be avoided at all costs. And that manifests in many ways in her life, often to our chagrin. So there’s a lot of room for improvement there.

I’ll keep at it, because that’s what this dad life is all about. Trying, failing, learning, trying something else. And that’s probably a good mindset to project.

Besides, you can’t catch fish with a bicycle.