The Biggest Unrecognized Mistake We’re Inflicting on Our Kids

By Tom Gilson Published on May 13, 2017

Growing up is dangerous. Nearly all of us make it through anyway.

My daughter, Lisa, sprained her ankle 17 times while she was growing up. A few months ago she ran a half-marathon. She suffered a serious concussion in high school, and an even more serious one during college: it interfered with her cognitive processes for well over a year. Still she graduated from Miami University last December, a semester ahead of her peers.

Kids can fight their way through a lot. To see how parents protect them these days, though, you’d think making it all the way to adulthood was a rare event. We do everything in our power to protect them from every possible danger. Too much, on the whole, I’d say.

My generation has made its share of mistakes, but I think overprotecting our kids might be one of the worst of them.

My generation has made its share of mistakes, but I think overprotecting our kids might be one of the worst — and least recognized — errors we’ve committed along the way. 

We Forgot How We Grew Up

We thought it was so important to keep our kids safe, but we forgot how we grew up ourselves. My brother and I used to ride our bikes three times a week to play golf at a small course four or five miles away. It was just the two of us. We were no older than our early teens, as I recall.

Once I decided it would be an adventure to walk the seven miles home from junior high school, rather than taking the bus. I told my parents I’d be home late that day, and they said “Fine, enjoy your walk.”

My friends and I used to play hide-and-seek with flashlights, long after dark, across our entire neighborhood.

Adventures like that could never happen today. I never see kids waiting alone for the school bus in the morning; there’s always a mom or dad watching from inside a car nearby. It’s gotten so bad that not long ago a “concerned citizen” filed a report with Manitoba’s Child and Family Services against a mom who let her kids play inside their own fenced back yard.

Kids Need To Face Challenges On Their Own

Those who never have problems don’t learn what it’s like to solve problems. Kids who never face challenges on their own don’t get any practice in overcoming them on their own.

Granted, school counts as a challenge for most, but it’s a heavily supervised one. The same goes for athletics: there’s always a lot of adults around.

I don’t remember any adults helping us with any of it. We had a problem and our parents let us solve it.

I never played Little League ball when I was growing up. I envied the kids who got real uniforms to wear, and had real bases to run around. But that didn’t stop my friends and me. There was a vacant lot on our block; nothing there but tall grass. We got permission from the owner to cut the grass and build a backstop. We made our own ball field there.

I was all of nine years old that summer. Some of the other kids might have been as old as 12 or 13. I don’t remember any adults helping us with any of it. We had a problem and our parents let us solve it.

I don’t know how my generation lost track of how important that kind of thing was for us when we were kids. I suppose we got badly spooked by stories of strangers stealing children. We forgot that there was a far more likely danger that our kids would grow up stunted in their ability to face real problems, if we kept them protected all the time.

I can’t help wondering if that’s a large part of the reason college students today are so shrill in their demand for “safe spaces.” Some of them — many of them, maybe — have always lived inside safe spaces. Someday they’ll graduate, and there won’t be anyone around to enforce that “safety” for them. They won’t be ready for it.

Kids will have a hard time growing up to take great
risks to change the world if they haven’t taken risks to
play in their neighborhoods.

Growing Up To Do Something Worthwhile

Doctors have discovered a link between having a lot of dirt on your hands as a child, and being free of allergies and asthma as an adult. Even more obvious is the link between facing challenges while young and growing up to do something significant.

Our son has a great job, but he went through a lot getting there: two seasonal jobs that lasted only as long as they lasted, three jobs that he genuinely needed to leave because his bosses had seriously misrepresented the pay and working conditions, one job that he wasn’t suited for and was let go from, and another hard-working early morning job he didn’t like very much but persevered in anyway. There wasn’t a lot of “safety” for him on the way to the work he’s doing now.

“I Can’t Stand To Watch, and I Can’t Stand Not To Watch”

Our daughter’s locker partner in high school, Taylor, was an Olympic hopeful gymnast. She practiced hours every day, and suffered more than one broken bone, getting to the point of competing at level 10. There is no level 11; if you get to that stage you’re on the national team.

“I can’t stand to watch, and I can’t stand not to watch. It’s really hard — but I’m so proud of her.”

We went to one of her meets. When she was on the balance beam I watched her dad as closely as I did her. I wanted to know what it felt like to see your daughter doing tumbling routines on a four inch-wide hunk of timber. I asked him afterward, and he told me, “I can’t stand to watch, and I can’t stand not to watch. It’s really hard — but I’m so proud of her.”

A few weeks later I saw an old friend of mine whose son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren were serving in Nigeria as medical missionaries. There was considerable violence going on in their region at the time. I asked the dad how it felt. His answer sounded almost exactly like Taylor’s dad: “I really wish they weren’t there, but I know it’s right, and I am so proud of them.”

Growing Up To Make A Difference

I’m no child psychologist, but I’m pretty sure kids will have a hard time growing up to take great risks to change the world if they haven’t taken risks to play in their neighborhoods.

Next week my daughter will be marrying an Army lieutenant. He was assigned to the National Guard after his commissioning, but he’s pulling hard to go on active duty. I know it’s going to be tough on Lisa, if and when he’s deployed to an active battle zone, but I know she’ll make it. As the dad, I know it’s going to be hard on me, too. I’m sure I’ll say “This is so hard to live with. I can’t stand it!” But I will be — as I already am — so proud of them both.

 

Tom Gilson is a senior editor with The Stream and the author of Critical Conversations: A Christian Parents’ Guide to Discussing Homosexuality with Teens (Kregel Publications, 2016). Follow him on Twitter: @TomGilsonAuthor.

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