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Letting Kids Do Scary Things

Photo by Dmitry Naumov via Adobe Stock

Have you ever wondered why we grew up running through the forest miles from home with no way to call for help, yet we find it so darn hard to let our children do risky things? Just the thought of our kids jumping from high places, striking a match, or using the sharpest knife in the kitchen has us running through a gamut of anxiety- inducing worst-case scenarios.

This was an issue Bellevue-based KidsQuest Children’s Museum endeavored to get to the bottom of when it invited safe-risk expert and author Gever Tulley to help it put on its first-ever Danger Day in late January. During the event, young museum patrons were exposed to some of the titular scenarios in Tulley’s 50 Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do), which aligns with the museum’s mission of providing opportunities for exploration of safe risks.

“This experience teaches kids persistence, responsibility, and emotional regulation. It also gives grown-ups the skills to uplift their kids and regulate their own responses to risk,” Jamie Bonnett, director of education at KidsQuest, explained in a release about the event.

We caught up with Tulley after the event to get to the bottom of why we morph into the mother from A Christmas Story — cackling that our kiddos will, “Shoot (their) eyes out!” — if we perceive any kind of risk.

Tulley said, “Something like 70 percent of parents” believe — not unlike Ralphie’s mom — that letting their children play with a sharp stick could lead to eye injuries. Tulley mentioned a Centers for Disease Control stat that most pediatric eye injuries occur in schools with pens and pencils. “And yet, we have these responses kind of written into us.”

The fault lies, in part, on the 24-hour news cycle, according to Tulley.

“The media promotes stories of children in peril. We occasionally hear about the kid who won the regional science fair, or (the kid who) through hard work and determination built themselves a boat or something, right?” Tulley said.

Pulling from his book and research, Tulley shared five ways we can channel our inner Elsa to “Let it go,” and allow our children to feel nervous, recognize risk, push boundaries, and mitigate danger.

So, let’s all take a deep, steadying parent breath and dive in.

Changing Our Language

Instead of calling out, “Be careful with that,” we can remind them that they can pause for a minute and take a look at what they’re about to do. I don’t need to tell a child to be careful when climbing a tree. But I might need to remind them that I’m not coming up that tree, so don’t go any higher than you feel comfortable climbing back down. When we project our fears onto them, they pick up the habit of imagining the worst possible outcome, so that yelling out of, “Be careful,” distracts them from the activity that they’re doing. And now they’re worried about your evaluation and judgment of what they’re doing more than what they’re actually doing. It divides their attention and makes activities that are only slightly risky, much riskier.

Gever Tulley. Courtesy of the subject.

Yes, And ...

The other thing that I think we can do is we can borrow this habit from the improv world, which is to respond to requests that we might deny with, “and.” It is sort of this, “Yes, and … ” (approach). “Mom, can I claim that tree?” “Yes; and show me that you’re avoiding the rotten branches.” Or “Yes; and don’t go any higher than 10 feet.   at’s what I’m comfortable with today.”

Have Conversations About Risk When Everyone is Ready

The other big important thing to do is to set the habit of opening conversation about risky things. And in the book, 50 Dangerous Things, when there’s an activity that the family is uncomfortable with, the instruction from the book is to write a date on that page that says when we’re going to talk about this again. It’s an agreement between you and the child. So, it’s a way to depressurize something that maybe that adult just needs a little more time to think and talk about.

Reflect on Your Own Childhood Risks

Think back to your parents’ childhood or your grandparents’ childhood, and (ask), “Did my grandparents throw rocks at the pond?” “Yes.” “And are they just fine?” “Yes.” “Did that bring any kind of harm?” “No.” So, throwing rocks is maybe one of those activities that if you’ve got a good place where you can throw rocks, (you) should throw rocks because it’s a really good activity for children’s brains, and neurologically, it’s super-well supported.

On COVID-Related Risks

Getting your kids out into the world in spite of (COVID) is also important. And, you know, making sure that they don’t develop a kind of onset agoraphobia. Everything past the front door is dangerous, sure. … (But) we need this generation of kids to feel connected to the world and to feel like there’s possibilities out there.

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