Saturday, April 20, 2013

In Defense of a Dangerous Childhood

Everywhere I go around young children I hear adults telling their own, "Be careful." I hear them telling mine, "Be careful."  I haven't gone to a public kid-oriented place this year and not heard this catch-all phrase.  I use it myself.

I ask myself, "Is be careful a worthy enough mantra for the childhood of my sons?"

I take Landon to the park.  The recycled tire ground is almost softer than my couch. The play structures are secure, well-designed and appropriately scaled. And yet, all around me mothers are admonishing children to be careful of this and be careful of that.  You might fall. You might get hurt. You might get going too fast/high/happy on that.  Meanwhile, a kind of compliant listlessness sets in. Perhaps it is simply not engaging to interact so mildly with an environment so tame.

These parks encircled by attentive parents don't feature in my memories of childhood.  When I think of the quintessential moments, I don't remember carefully mulched surfaces and bridges with narrowly spaced slats. I remember trees.

Mysterious, beautiful, daunting and dangerous trees.  A willow that rewarded the curious with a secret world unto itself. A Japanese maple that was too delicate to climb, but too gorgeous to ignore. Towering prickly pines that dared you to climb so high you would sway in the wind, unable to see the ground below. Oaks with their sturdier branches, but trickier access. I was a tree-climbing monkey fiend, whose escapades, had they been known, certainly would have made the adults who cherished me uncomfortable.

Tree-climbers are problem solvers, because the path up and down has to be decided and navigated entirely on your own.  Unlike play equipment whose use is obvious and concrete, trees ask you to decide, choose wisely, and both conquer and heed your own fear. By painstaking increments, you find out what you are made of in the branches of a tall tree. At the top, you find out you are both smaller and braver than you thought. And you learn confidence--not from a generous parent praising your tiniest effort on a primary-colored tube of plastic, but in a solitary moment with the wind blowing your hair and the branches swaying enough to tell you that they can't sustain your going any higher. You feel more primal, less primary.

So when I see Landon discovering his first awesome "come-climb-me-kid" tree today, I have mixed feelings. I'm born into the "Be careful," parenting generation coming from an "embrace challenge" childhood.

I believe that a person learns confidence and competence by experience, not by praise and support. (as valuable as those gifts are) If I "Be-careful!" my kids out of taking any risk, no matter how small, because I want to protect them from harm (no matter how small), I'd also be robbing them of significant opportunities to grow.  And could there be a correlation between a person developing physical courage while they are young and a person developing more important kinds of courage later? What about the moral courage to stand up for what you believe in the face of opposition? How do you get the guts to do that? Or consider how much confidence you need to have to start a new business, relationship or degree program. What's more likely to get results, careful or wise? Careful or creative? Careful or confident?

Can a person grow wise, creative and confident if they are never allowed to find out whether they can do anything that scares them?

Can I let my kids do "dangerous" things for a greater good? Can I be ok with the fact that my kids will get hurt, disappointed, frightened and fail?  Well, I've a tree-climbing childhood that tells me that some of the best things happen when you stretch a little past comfort.

I'm willing to try.


  1. You certainly can and should let your children encounter danger. If not when they are growing up, how will they face it as an adult?

  2. I love that you bring such insight to the daily events. Your boys are well on their way to being of the growth mindset because their mom looks at things through a unique and inquisitive lens. Well done!