Is it OK to frighten kids?
This blog post is by Nicola Baird sharing ideas about thrifty, creative and eco-friendly ways to raise children. This post asks you to think about how to help children find the world welcoming rather than scary. For more info about my book Homemade Kids, with lots of ideas about parenting click here.
Loads of children seem brave to the point of foolhardy. They can walk on walls, tackle enormous opponents (in sport), and get excited about abseiling or capsizing. Many are the exact opposite too, very cautious about new experiences. In both cases it helps if children can assess risk.
This is easier if adults are around kids a lot of the time (hello school holidays!) and not fussing. Turning summersaults on a rail, walking with eyes shut, learning to roller blade or climbing a tree are all fun activities but you so often overhear mums telling their children to “be careful”.
I’ve tried to ban that expression “be careful” in our house feeling that it’s better to spell out the risks. Say “If you wobble try to fall to the right, away from the cars/dog poo/glass,” rather than produce a white noise phrase “be careful” that is easy for a child to ignore.
It probably helps that I teach riding, as horses are 100 per cent risk, though I reckon they offer children 100 per cent fun too. Anyone who rides a horse needs to wear a proper fitting helmet, be supervised in the early days, and know not to shriek, suddenly jump off or stick their hand up (thus waving a whip) to ask a question. They need to be able to lead a big animal and not panic about their foot being trod on (and rather more to the point make sure they’ve got strong footwear). They need to anticipate problems and be ready to reassure the horse that a fluttering crisp packet is not dangerous at all.
Teaching risk is tricky. It can even make nervous children more anxious. I remember 10 year old Mia freaking out about squirrels after I’d mentioned that they can sometimes scare a horse when you are hacking in the woods.
But not teaching risk can be a problem too – passers-by can accidentally terrify children. As I did yesterday. Well not me, my dog who jumped barking towards a cat. He was on a lead and had been sitting quietly on the pavement staring at the cat. The aim is to let the dog quietly watch. If he barks he’s turned away. The hope is that this will teach him that cats are friends. But it’s difficult – he’s a terrier who doesn’t live with or like cats. (In the dog’s defence he is safe with children, hens, ducks and sheep).
Unfortunately a seven or eight year old was passing us at the exact moment the dog leapt forward who clearly thought she was about to be eaten. Her Turkish mum could see the dog had his eye on his nemsis, but she was cross with the girl for being so upset – possibly forgetting she wasn’t being feeble, she was terrified. It was my fault, and I certainly tried to apologise. But it reminded me that families have to expose children to the unexpected for them to be able to be brave. Animals are unpredictable, just like cars that also often come from nowhere, silently and fast. Though in London it’s extremely unlikely you will be seriously injured by an animal. That can’t be said for cars.
It’s a shame that little girl had such a bad experience. Let’s hope she will one day make a friend who has a dog (or cat) and get to know animals can be lovely.
Over to you
How do you cope when your child does something you think is risky? Do you say “be careful” or avoid the phrase?