Updated: Dec 4, 2019
"Prepare your child for the road, not the road for the child."
Is there anything more terrifying than the idea of your child suffering? As you observe the storms of rage and intolerance in the world you engineer your child's safety within the walls of your home. It might be harsh out there but under your watch you will do everything you can to ensure the safest and most caring environment possible.
Then you send your kids to school, to play, to work, and eventually to permanently move out. How do you know they're ready for the "world". You worry that perhaps they aren't ready, so you venture into the storm to forge a path for them by advocating for safer spaces, nicer societies, and less allergens. That should do it, right?
But you discover that "out there" people disagree with your view of how society is supposed to be. Out there, the safe path you have blazed crosses with alternate paths towards conflicting ideals of utopia. Your heaven is someone else's hell and vice-versa. The safe path that you're forging threatens others. In addition, the path you paved has already been hidden by overgrowth, disappearing behind you. The chaotic and random growth of the natural world dismisses your attempt at control.
Your efforts are futile.
So instead of preparing the road for the child, we help the child be ready for the roads that nature and culture have set. And I'm sorry to say, those roads are bumpy.
Here are some tips to help you prepare your children for a world that is harsh but that is also ripe with opportunities. Most of them come from Psychologist's Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff's provoking book "The Coddling of the American Mind".
1) Assume your kids are more capable this month than they were the last. If you give your kids more credit than you did the month prior you will inevitably be leading them to more responsibility and empowerment. The antidote to most normal human anxiety is competence. By building competency in our children they become less nervous and more willing to take on the necessary challenges of regular life.
2) Let your children take more small risks. Maybe you let them use the scissors even though you know they won't cut it out "right". Maybe you let them slide down the stairs on their stomachs like they've always wanted to. I'm not saying we should turn our homes into the thunderdome but perhaps there are more situations in which your child can try something new and experience natural consequences.
3) Visit www.freerangekids.com and www.letgrow.org. It's kind of sad that "free range parenting" has to even be a thing. 30 years ago, everyone was a free range parent. But if this philosophy doesn't come as second nature to you then maybe you should consult these websites and encourage your friends and neighbours to do the same.
4) Have children walk or ride bikes to school if possible, and as soon as possible. How old were you when you started walking to school? What makes you think your child is less capable to do so? Especially when today's world is significantly safer than it was when we were kids. Walking to school has been shown to have enormous benefits to quality of life. How much longer are you willing to rob your child of these benefits?
5) Find a community of families willing to let their kids play outside with yours unsupervised. Ok, so you're not ready to fully "free range" your kids. What if you could align yourself with half a dozen families in your neighbourhood so you know your kids will always be within yelling distance of at least one adult on your block? Would you allow your child to play outside without you supervising them then?
6) Teach Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to your children. It sounds complicated but let me sum it up as best as I can. Face your fears. The thoughts you have about your fears are actually highly likely to be incorrect or not helpful. You can find evidence that your problems are either not about you, not permanent, or not as catastrophic as you think. You can do things (deep breathing, exercising, etc.) that calm your body down regardless of your situation in life.
7) Teach mindfulness. Meditating and deep breathing is great and helps you be more resilient to negative thoughts and events. The key though, in my limited opinion, is the mindfulness piece. This is the non-judgmental observation of your surroundings and internal state. Paying attention to the tiniest of details and learning to live in the moment makes your worries melt away. You can't be in the 'here and now' AND be anxious at the same time. Anxiety is fear of the future. Learn to be mindfully in the present and you can't be as anxious. This moves kids towards being more resilient and prepared for life's difficulties.
8) Reduce amount of toys. This helps for a number of reasons, first of which is that too many options leads to paralysis by analysis. In an empty room with nothing but a pad of paper and a pencil, a child can be entertained indefinitely but add a few toys and they will be bored immediately. If you don't want to trash your toys then put most of them in storage and rotate them every other week. The more the child has to do at home the less they will do outside and that's where the character development, social skills, exercise, and nature benefits kick in.
9) One hard thing rule. You AND your children should have one hard thing that you are working on at any given point. Some kind of project or hobby that is difficult, that requires concerted, regular effort, and is rewarding. Maybe it's a language, a skill, an instrument, a sport, a cross-word puzzle, something. Be in the practice of doing hard things. Model to your kids that doing hard things is hard but worth it.
10) Send them on errands. Having your kids walk to the store to pick up the ice cream is not a ploy for lazy parents. This is enabling and empowering. You are giving your children opportunities to have responsibility and duty and it will be more exciting and rewarding than the ice cream itself. Make sure they know your phone number and address. Teach them who they can ask for help if needed (99% of the people at the grocery store are safe but if you want to be extra sure than tell them to ask people who work at the store). Teach them where family, friends, and trusted people along the way live, in case they need to knock on a door to use the bathroom or borrow a phone. In the 70's the checklist for a child's preparedness to attend grade one included the ability to walk a few blocks by themselves. In today's age, a child that young walking around would almost inevitably lead to a call to Child Services. If your child is 16 and has never been outside without an adult supervising them then I think Child Services should be called on you.
Remember, the antidote to most human anxiety is competence. By robbing our children of authentic learning experiences we cripple them, potentially for the rest of their lives.