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Your Kid Wants to Take Risks. Before You Say ‘No,’ Consider the Why

An illustration of a little girl in a blue shirt walking along a tightrope. She is balancing above different geometric shapes that the tightrope is attached to. The geometric shapes appear from left to right as a yellow triangle, a blue circle, and a pink square.
McKenzie Cordell

Look, maybe the first few times your kid fell off the monkey bars and scraped their knee, you rushed over to make sure they were OK, but now? You’re totally chill. Except… are you really? Consider how many times a day you call out “be careful!” to your offspring. And when your kid asks to help out with dinner, do you actually let them or do you give them the easy job of stirring the sauce (you know, away from the stove)?

It’s normal for parents—even the non-anxious ones—to have powerful protective impulses, and those instincts do serve an important purpose. However, when taken to the extreme, this helicopter style of parenting can do more harm than good for your child’s healthy development, experts caution.

So how can you tell if you’re guilty of holding your kid back with overbearing behavior, or simply making sure they come home from the playground in one piece? We tapped Dr. Bethany Cook, clinical psychologist and mother of two, for some expert advice to help parents navigate the murky waters of child-rearing.

While it’s obviously not recommended to be blindly ignorant of your child’s safety, Dr. Cook tells us that there’s quite a lot of wisdom behind the notion that parents should not hover over their children in an effort to prevent any potential physical or emotional harm—namely because getting hurt is a part of life. Instead, the goal should be to “teach your child how to cope with the hurt that comes from life, as well as how to (independently) prevent it as much as possible.”

In fact, an overprotective parenting style can be seriously detrimental. “If a child has been taught to fear difficult or unknown activities this can lead to not only anxiety but depression as well, as it shuts down their natural curiosity to try new things, make new friends or expand their world,” explains Dr. Cook. And that’s not all—shame, self-doubt and people-pleasing are also common behaviors among children who are raised by overprotective parents, the psychologist tells us. Ultimately, “these kids tend to not take the necessary risks to grow to their full potential and many times struggle with perfectionism in an attempt to never fail,” she adds.

Understood. But for anxious parents, sublimating fear and the overprotective instincts that come with it can be a tall older. As such, the expert recommends parents consider the why when it comes to risky behavior. Of course, not all situations will allow you the time and objective space to follow this advice; still, Dr. Cook says that if you get in the habit of doing it when you can, it will help train your brain to respond appropriately to your kid’s behavior, even when time isn’t on your side.

Why Does My Child Want or Need to Do This?

Let’s say your 3-year-old wants to try a bite of your spicy chicken taco. Whether or not you’re going to offer up a taste, consider why this is something she wants to do in the first place. Is it curiosity? A desire to acquire a new life skill? Boredom? Maybe in this instance, you decide that while she probably won’t enjoy it, you also don’t want to squash her curiosity for new foods and international cuisines.

And remember, not all risks are physical. Consider the child who wants to try out for the lead in the school musical, despite being completely tone-deaf. You may be tempted to save him from the sting of failure but think about your kid’s reasoning before suggesting he try out for basketball instead. Maybe he knows that he can’t sing but wants to improve, or maybe you child simply wants to expand his friendship group or find something to do on Thursday afternoons. Once you’ve homed in on the why, it will likely make you more comfortable accepting a certain level of risk (and potential heartbreak). Remember, disappointment is a part of life that every child needs to learn how to recover from…and experience is the best teacher in that department.

Why Do I Want to Say ‘No’?

So your middle schooler wants to do flips on the trampoline, and you shudder at the thought. (Cue flashback to when your first grade bestie came to school with a cast after flipping off of a trampoline and onto the concrete.) Now is when the expert advises you take a step back and ask yourself the following:

Is it truly too ‘unsafe’ or am I just anxious and bringing my own history into the equation? Is my child capable of this?

Maybe you decide to set your past aside and let your slightly older kid give the stunt a go; or perhaps you conclude that—personal history notwithstanding—doing flips is a risk you don’t feel comfortable with on a trampoline but is A-OK in a gymnastics class. Either way, “it’s important to look at the benefits vs the risks when it comes to giving kids space to do activities that may feel outside your comfort zone or their ability,” advises Dr. Cook. And yes, sometimes this might involve looking for a workaround in the form of an alternative that will ultimately lead said kid to their desired goal.

One Last Thing…

After you’ve considered the “why,” there’s one more step for parents to take and, as you might’ve surmised, it’s to hang back and let your kid do their thing.

“If a parent always softens the fall, a child will develop a false sense of self and abilities that may impact their relationships with everyone in unhealthy ways,” says Dr. Cook.

Bottom line: Kids benefit tremendously when parents practice self-awareness…and in many cases, a simple ‘why?’ is all it takes to own your anxiety instead of passing it down to your kid.