We all want strong, resilient children. Children that will be able to handle whatever life throws at them and grow stronger by overcoming their challenges. And yet we still want to protect our little ones from everything within our power; to let them walk on soft rose petals under a never-cloudy sky. The problem is that these two desires, both innate in all good parents, tend to conflict in reality. Striking the correct balance can seem daunting, and quite frankly, sometimes a little scary.
Research suggests that overly sheltered children grow up unable to deal with the difficulties of life - you’re not going to be there forever, playing bodyguard. While you’re all too aware that this is the case, sometimes it’s tough to let go. Raising resilient children is about letting your child have access to learning experiences, even if those experiences have temporary, unpleasant consequences. As difficult as it is to face, it means that you will have to let your children get hurt.
The best place to start is to remember that pain is not an “enemy”. Pain is there for a reason - to teach us that something is wrong. It’s a warning or a guide - helping children to learn restrictions, boundaries, and consequences. It can be our child’s friend if we are careful to keep it in its proper place.
What does this mean in practical terms? Well, when your child is learning to walk, sometimes you’re going to have to let him fall. Don’t hover over him, ready to catch as soon as he starts to toddle. When she wants to learn how to climb, let her. Just make sure she does not get so high that a fall could lead to a concussion or broken bones. Be there to support your child but remember - you are not a security blanket!
When my first child was learning to walk, I was guilty of playing ‘helicopter parent’ - forever hovering around him, creating a protective shield of ever-rotating mummy arms just in case he should make the nine-inch journey to the floor. Until he had perfected walking, my hands were always there like a stuntman’s safety net, ready to break the terrifying fall. I made sure he dressed in exactly one layer more than I wore, just like the parenting books said to, and I carefully sterilized his fork and spoon before mealtimes.
Now his little sister is just over a year old. Now, there’s something very different about raising child number two; all of a sudden the unknown becomes the known, and you start to relax into parenthood. Case in point - where I carefully swaddled my first child in the safest shoes money could by, my one-year-old quite happily goes barefoot in all weather. When she made her first toddling steps, I made no move to block the inevitable fall. Yes, I was there for her. But I changed the worried “Oh, no, are you okay?” that I gave big brother to “You fell, sweetheart! Can you get up again?”
And while big brother still has a hard time dealing with uncomfortable circumstances, little sister treats physical pain as something scarcely worth noticing. The difference between their attitudes towards pain is very clear, and I attribute it back to those early days, and the clear changes in my own approach.
Children get their cues from us. If we are scared, so are they. If we can view their problems with equilibrium, they get the message that it is no big deal; that it is something they can conquer.
This doesn’t mean we aren’t empathetic. We need to be. But we also need to resist the temptation to worry about what is nothing more than our child’s first experience with adventure.
Dirt and Germs
Attitudes and opinions towards dirt have changed throughout the ages. When we first started to understand that unsanitary conditions were making us ill, we reacted by overreacting. We wrapped our children in the proverbial cotton wool, and shrieked at the sight of a bit of mud. Even now, there are some schools of thought who insist that children are best raised in sterile, bleached environments. And despite our attempt to liberate ourselves from our disinfected confines, a lot of us take instant hand sanitizers with us whenever we leave our homes. Cleanliness is and will always be important, but our children’s immune systems need exposure to bacteria and microbes in order to build up essential antibodies.
Children who grow up in sterile environments can have weak immune systems and are more likely to get sick the first time they come in contact with unknown bacteria.
What does this mean? When your one-year-old, following the instincts of all toddlers, puts a pinecone or a stick in her mouth - don’t freak out. It’s not exactly going to taste good, so chances are it’ll come out as quickly as it went in. But more importantly, your child is exploring in the way she knows best, and she’s also stimulating her immune system and building up her body’s natural defenses against a whole host of diseases.
It goes without saying that feces-contaminated dirt is an entirely different matter, of course. It is always important to make sure your child is playing in a healthy, non-contaminated environment. For example, make sure you check the sandpit before your child climbs in; you never know when the neighbour’s cat might have paid a visit!
Your child is precious and perfect, but they are not intended to be a delicate, hothouse plant, ready to wilt at the first cold draft. Give your child exposure to pain, to consequences, to the winds of life, and enable them to be strong, tall, and fearless; like an oak in the meadow.