Brave Not Perfect
Simply sitting at a playground and listening to the conversations of others provides deep insight into the limiting language that parents often use with their children. "Be careful - watch out! That's too high. No." These messages of fear are absorbed by kids, permeate their lives in other endeavours, and can stay with them throughout adolescence and even into adulthood. Children hear these fearful cautions and quickly equate the fear from their parents as fears they themselves should own. We need to stop cautioning our kids without cause and start learning to trust in their abilities on the playground and across all areas of development.
When it comes to pushing our children to do things that cause fear we need to start by allowing them to do things that cause them no fear, regardless of how fast your own heart is beating and the amount of sweat accumulating in the palms of your hands. Being there to support them in case they stumble is much more productive for their development than stopping them in their tracks before they have even tried. Telling our kids not to talk to strangers from a young age makes children internalize that all strangers are bad. This belief is not functional for social situations in the real world. We need to be less concerned with eliminating sources of risk and, instead, emphasize how to appropriately respond to risk. We need to help our children learn to develop good judgment in order to build skills in assessment and the corresponding response. To do this they need to be exposed to risk and they need opportunities to test their capabilities, trepidations, and their decision-making skills.
Raising kids to be brave doesn't mean throwing them into the deep end and hoping they swim. It is just as detrimental to ignore your children's fear as it is to never let them try. Instead, we need to break down tasks into smaller, more manageable components, and guide them to success in ways that work for the specific child. If you are wondering where to start, there are many different resources from numerous experts that you can look into if you are seeking help with tackling a child's fear. For a great general knowledge book, that is easy to read and provides different strategies for tackling childhood anxiety and fear, I recommend the book "The Opposite of Worry: The Playful Parenting Approach to Childhood Anxieties and Fears," by Lawrence J. Cohen.
When it comes to my children I believe it is important to push them out of their comfort zones. For example, Maelle (who is 3 years old) is expected to interact with "strangers." At Starbucks she orders her own drink; at the restaurant, she asks for a fork if she needs one; at the library, she asks for paper if they run out; and she says thank you to every teacher or volunteer after a class. If she chooses not to ask, then we don't ask for her. She won't be reprimanded, but she also doesn't get what she wants. During physical play, we trust in her ability to know her own body and limits. If she is choosing to use equipment in a way that it is not meant to be used we will stop her but otherwise, we give her the opportunity to find success on her own terms. If she attempts something challenging we are there to support her but try to avoid guiding her verbally or assisting physically. More often than not she knows her own capabilities, can decide what limits she can push, and achieves a goal without help. This approach by us makes her achievements more rewarding - her accomplishments are all her own and she builds her self-esteem in step with her independence. With Linden, who is just shy of 17 months, we follow the exact same philosophy as we do with Maelle in terms of physical play. Linden is very social and has not displayed much stranger danger but when it does occur, I allow him to come to me for reassurance and then push him to explore independently so that he learns there is no real danger and nothing to be fearful of. The minute he has enough words to communicate his wants and needs, he too will be expected to speak for himself.
Lastly, as parents, we need to model bravery. We need to be bold enough to show our children that we too can face our fears. Allowing our children to see our failures and how we tackle the setbacks life throws at us gives them a concrete example of resilience. In the end, we need to let go of perfection-seeking in both our children and ourselves. It is unattainable and an impossible standard to live up to. We should remind ourselves that the mastery of a skill is not what's important but rather the art of persevering through the challenges of learning that new skill. Expecting success without setbacks breeds a fear of failing. So instead of raising our kids to be perfect, we should raise them to be resilient, hardworking, courageous, and ultimately brave. And when we allow our children the space to grow we learn quickly that they can be successful without over-parenting - without us hovering over their every move and without micromanaging their every need.