The Re-Empowerment of a Generation – or two

We have been abusing our children with too much safety.  We have been creating incompetent children who will become incompetent “adults.”  Too many young people don’t know how to take even basic care of themselves in a strange or potentially dangerous situation, to avoid getting hurt, to ask for help, or to get out of even minor trouble.

How does this happen?  Simple: we want our kids to be safe, so we protect them from what we perceive as hazards.  The problem occurs when we lose sight of what’s a true danger and what is necessary for their growth.  Blinkered or even blinded by our own fear, we deprive them of experiences that we took for granted (or maybe you didn’t, if you’re under the age of fifty – this has been going on for two generations in some families).

It’s usually done with honorable motivation. It is natural and commendable to want life to be better for our children than it was for us. But we need to discriminate between the skills that they must develop through responsibility, hardship, consequences, and difficult decisions, and the opportunity to have their lives be easier than ours were. Did you climb trees? Break trails through the bush with other kids? Use a knife? Let your children have that too, teach them when necessary, and let them learn just as you did when something goes wrong. Let them have fun! Let them become competent.

I worked with children for more than twenty years. I’ve seen kids eight years old who were skilled with knives, who took responsibility when they cut themselves, and kids whose awareness of their own bodies was so limited that they couldn’t walk on uneven ground without stumbling, who would blame someone else – anyone else – when they experienced discomfort or pain.

I’ve also seen kids grow from incompetence to competence, becoming confident as they developed skill with axes, knives, and fire, as they learned to climb trees, find their way through unfamiliar woods while blindfolded (it’s called a blindfold drum stalk, and it’s an amazing experience for humans of any age), or pick and eat wild berries.

When you let your children go to a new experience or even a familiar one, don’t tell them to be careful.  Don’t warn them that they will hurt themselves (because they will, if you plant that idea).  Tell them to pay attention.  Invite them to identify the hazards with you if necessary, then tell them to have fun and let them go.  Let them know that you have confidence in them. Do your best to hide your own fear, and then work on leaving that behind. You’ve heard that dogs can smell fear? It’s in your body language, facial expression, and the tone of your voice. Kids read that very well. They need to know that you care, not that you’re scared.

When I was in grade school I remember kids coming to school with casts on their arms or bandages on various parts, and displaying those wrappings like a badge of honour.  Hurting yourself was part of the adventure, and there was always a story to go with the badge. We learned from our own painful experiences, and we need to let our young people do that too. When they hurt themselves, we help them learn from that. It’s part of our job as parents, teachers, uncles and aunties, grandparents, and members of the community in which these future adults are growing up.

Jean Liedloff, in a book with the somewhat imposing title The Continuum Concept, describes her time with a Venezuelan tribe who let even their smallest children do things that would have people in our society calling 911: handling sharp tools, wandering in the jungle where predators hunt, and in one instance which she describes with great clarity (and some shock), playing unsupervised at less than 2 years old on the edge of a drop that would have killed the child had it fallen over the edge – with no interference from the adults nearby.  Her book describes how this way of being works well for them. At www.continuum-concept.org, there is a good description of the concept and an invitation to join a network of interested people.

I’m not suggesting that we try to become like those Venezuelan people.  Most of us are not ready for that.  What we can do is consciously permit and even arrange for our kids to have experiences that develop competence and confidence rather than reinforcing dependence and fear.

This can begin with recognizing and talking about some of the sources of fear in our society.  Much of it is well-intentioned, and some quite deliberate – look critically at advertising for drugs, security systems, insurance, lawyer services. Whatever the motivation, the effect is cumulative: when we are exposed to messages of fear, we will become fearful unless we are continuously examining those messages. Gavin de Becker has written several excellent  books about fear, including The Gift of Fear and Protecting the Gift. The latter addresses how parents can help their children.  He offers several ideas that run counter to common “wisdom.” One false idea is “Don’t talk to strangers.” De Becker points out that we do this all the time, and kids need to learn to do it safely, with good judgment and confidence. Another of his suggestions is that when in trouble, a child should go to a woman, not a man in uniform (if that riles you, read the book).

Let your actions with your children be guided by this idea:

Whenever you do for someone else something that they can, should, or want to do for themselves, you disempower them.

This isn’t just about playing outside. The idea that when we do for younger people we are preparing them to become incompetent adults applies not only to the hazards of the world outside, but also to skills such as banking, driving, cooking (the kitchen is the most hazardous room in the house), car maintenance, even housecleaning. Some young people don’t know how the basic skills of life in a kitchen, car, or bank. Did you open your own bank account? Learn to check tire pressure and oil level, and arrange a maintenance appointment? Here’s another opportunity to be a coach for your kids, involving them and taking pride in their development.

I’m reminded of the story about a well-intentioned man who tried to help a butterfly emerge from its chrysalis after metamorphosis. (I’ve watched this amazing event. It’s a slow process, and the butterfly struggles hard and rests often.) By “helping”, this man deprived that butterfly of the necessary effort of exercising the muscles that would pump fluid into its wings to expand them before the wings stiffened. The consequence was that the butterfly’s wings never unfolded fully. It was unable to fly, and it died.

Treat your children like emerging butterflies. Let them know you love them not by keeping them in the cocoon or micromanaging their emergence, but by letting them have their struggles while you hold a safe container for them to do so. You’ll be glad you did, and so will they. They will be liberated, and so will you.

September 20, 2022

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