Write me: rebecca@positive-parents.org

This is a guest post by PPTB administrator, Jean O’Neil.

Recently I went to the park with my sister-in-laws, their children, my own, and had a picnic. We set up not far from the play equipment so we could watch the children play and still enjoy a bit of catching up. About an hour after we finished eating I was watching my 17-month-old attempt to walk across a rope bridge.

Now I knew she wasn’t actually going to do it, she was clearly testing her limitations. She kept climbing up and down the stairs wondering if she could do it. She watched other children run across it so she knew it could be done, yet she hadn’t attempted it. If she had worked up the courage to walk across she may have fallen. But then again she may not have. There would have been no difference to my reaction. And that was to sit back and let her go.

As I watched I saw her little leg slide onto the rope and she stepped out. I saw in her body language her brain working out the movements and deciding if she was capable doing this.

Suddenly out of nowhere two mothers swept down, concern filtering into their reactions as they helped my daughter off the rope. I groaned. They then went about trying to find me, disgust in their eyes because I hadn’t stopped her from doing something potentially dangerous.

“Excuse me? Are you her mother?”
“Do you know she tried to climb that rope?”
“Oh really?”
“By herself? No one was watching her.”
“It’s okay…she does it all the time.” (A little white lie there.)

They walked away shaking their heads, and I watched them shaking mine. Despite their good intentions they have actually caused more harm than good. They made my daughter second guess herself. They made her fear her own ability.

I get up, hoping to salvage something of her dwindling confidence, and lead her back to the rope bridge. Low and behold she doesn’t want a bar of it…fear and uncertainty lacing her little body. I don’t push her, but lead her elsewhere wishing parents would just stick to parenting their own children.

Helicopter parents like those women don’t realize how much they are inhibiting their children by being overly cautious. These women keep their house spotless, won’t allow their children to eat food that has been dropped on the floor, or play in the mud. They have antibacterial gel in reach at all time, and refuse to allow their children to do anything they deem too dangerous.

Me? I watch my children like a hawk, but I watch them. Not just what they’re doing but what they’re learning. To me, children need to hurt themselves. They need to fall down and scrape knees and break bones. They learn so much from it. They not only learn how to fall, but how to pick themselves up, how to cope with the pain, how to ask for help, how to treat themselves, how far to push themselves. They learn their physical boundaries and learn if they can push them.

This ability is becoming rarer in our day and age. Children and adults are becoming more fearful and anxious. They refuse to step out of their comfort zone for fear of what exactly? It doesn’t matter really, but they learnt it from a young age and just labeled it. Fear of the unknown, fear of being different, fear of being hurt.

I struggle so hard trying to explain this in a way that doesn’t make me out to be a possible loon, and found the following story helped parents begin to understand:

Imagine you’re three again. You’ve just moved into a new house, and there is an awesome tree in your back yard. You walk over to it running your hands over the rough bark and look up into the leaves. It goes quiet high and as you’re watching the light filter through the leaves, your eyes land on a branch that is pretty low. Actually it looks…enticing.

You place your hands on the limb and give a little jump, instinctively testing to see if it will hold your weight. It bows gently but holds strong. Before the thought even ghosts into your mind, you find your body hoisting itself up onto the branch. You steady yourself against the trunk, wobbling slightly. You look up and grin, amazed at what you’ve achieved and then your mind begins to think of the possibilities. Maybe go higher? What would you see? You could see onto the roof…that would be cool!

And so you start moving through the branches ever higher. You don’t realize it but your body is learning new abilities. It’s learning how to counter you equilibrium so you stay balanced, how to distinguish the branches that will be best to climb, how to flex your hands and grip properly with your fingertips.

Then you hear the back door open and your mother yelling your name. You answer and smiling with pride, bursting with your achievements watch as her eyes find yours. But she’s not happy. In fact she’s down right petrified. Her face is screwed up in fear and for the first time you feel it as well. Her body is tense and so your body becomes tense. And then she says the worst thing.

“Oh my god, get down, you could fall and hurt yourself!”

What? You could fall? You could get hurt? This hadn’t even occurred to you. But now you realize she’s right. You could fall and hurt yourself. And now your mind…filled with doubt starts to second guess what you just learnt and overrides your body. Your foot slips and you fall.

And so becomes the self- fulfilling prophecy.

Your mother runs to you, concerned but also a little angry. “See, I told you.” she clucks while attending to you. ‘Yes,’ you think, ‘I should listen more.’

Over the years you do return to that tree and climb it many times. Yet you never quite reach the top and there is always that doubt, that fear that settles in the back of your mind and controls your decisions. You’ll find that as you enter adulthood you never really can decide immediately. You never really rely solely on your instincts and find that you’ll second guess yourself on pretty much everything. And even if you do something on impulse there is always a flash of guilt or fear that comes along with it. You may not even realize this…after all isn’t this exactly how humans are supposed to feel, how adults are supposed to act?


Do you see? Do you understand? Children believe they are invincible. This only changes when fear is introduced externally. If the mother had instead trusted her child’s innate self- preservation the child would have found great achievement in her own ability. The child would have learnt to trust herself, her instincts which have been honed over eons of evolution. That right there is so important to human development. Sure the child may have fallen…but that wouldn’t have dented the belief of invincibility. In fact it would have cemented it. A child free of fear, having fallen from the tree and hurt oneself has realized that they didn’t die but lived. Scars become trophies shown to fellow children with pride and looked upon with awe. Those children are the ones that strive forward purposely while others sit back and watch, wishing they had the courage.

Many mothers I talk to tell me that children can’t be trusted, that they are clumsy and need to be protected from themselves. But children aren’t born suicidal. Why would Mother Nature do that? In fact Mother Nature has provided them their instincts to protect them. It’s the well -meaning parents that undermine their child’s self- preservation skills and possibly place the child in self- inflicted danger.

Now just to be clear I’m not saying you should just allow your child freedom to do whatever they wish. I’m just saying that maybe try siting back a little and watching your little one at play…you’ll be surprised at what they can achieve 🙂


  • Momma in Progress Posted 25 July 2011 3:19

    "Helicopter parents like those women don't realize how much they are inhibiting their children by being overly cautious. These women keep their house spotless, won't allow their children to eat food that has been dropped on the floor, or play in the mud. They have antibacterial gel in reach at all time, and refuse to allow their children to do anything they deem too dangerous."
    Um, exactly how do you KNOW this? Judgmental, much?
    I think there's a fine line between encouraging safety and hovering. I don't get the impression from reading this, that you've found it. What you have found, however, is a great way to alienate people.

  • HeatherRadish Posted 25 July 2011 4:23

    Momma in Progress said: "Um, exactly how do you KNOW this? Judgmental, much?"

    The author struck a nerve, huh? Heh!

    This was an interesting anecdote for me because generally in public I see mothers acting exactly the opposite: When their child is doing something that could hurt other people or animals–tripping waitresses, throwing rocks, etc–they're totally wrapped up in themselves or their conversation to correct the child…until the second I ask the child to please stop, then they're all up in my face screaming about how I have no right to speak to their little sociopath because it might hurt his widdle feewings.

    The key phrase here seems to be "hurt other people" vs "hurt himself."

  • Momma in Progress Posted 25 July 2011 6:10

    The whole post, especially the paragraph I quoted in my previous comment, just seemed rather judge-y and presumptuous. Who knows what another mom on the playground is thinking/going through? To say things like "oh, she must be one of THOSE moms who . . ." is just petty and not helping anyone, IMO. And seriously, kids "need" to break bones? WTH? I kind of see what the author is getting at, and I even wrote a post along similar lines myself (http://mommainprogress.blogspot.com/2011/04/how-much-is-enough.html) but I think there's a difference between helicoptering and age-appropriate healthy boundaries. Oh, and I freaking love hand sanitizer. What's up with all the gel bashing?

  • Becky Posted 25 July 2011 9:28

    Jean and I have different views on this, as I am a professed helicopter mom, hovering all the time, sanitizer in the car and my purse 😉 But she did bring up some interesting points about how that affects the child's confidence, and I can that in my children, who are timid to try to new things.

    I know Jean, and she'd never allow her child to break a bone just to teach her about the consequences of falling. Her main point was that we need to allow our children some space to develop their abilities and confidence. 😉

  • La Mama Posted 25 July 2011 16:07

    Momma in Progress- You're seeing judgement where there is none. I'm not saying those women are terrible parents…in fact they are just the opposite. They are trying to keep their child from being in pain which is admireable to say the least.

    Those women however were judgemental to me. They deemed it fit to parent my own child in a perfectly safe environment (while I was watching) and then seeked me out in an effort to make me feel guilty for not parenting her they way they parent their own child.

    And as for the gel bashing – mentioned once hun…I have it myself, I just don't reach for it for every speck of dirt that gets on my child…I like their immune system to build some kind of resistence on its own.

  • mamapoekie Posted 27 July 2011 0:10

    It is a proven fact that children only go to the limits of their physical ability and rarely go beyond, if left to their own devices (that doesn't mean they'll never get bumped) Testing their own limits is their way of learning, and holding them back, like you say, is stunting them.
    Yet sadly we live in a society of fear, and many parents like to keep their children as fearful as they are
    Here's what I wrote about this a while back
    Another great parental fear is illness. But I say let them eat sand and drink out of the dogs bowl. They'll only build healthy antibodies from doing so.

  • Admin Posted 27 July 2011 8:28

    I think it is irresponsible to let a young toddler get into situation where they could hurt themselves. It is one thing to let them attempt a climb like that, but you need to be in arms reach, because they will attempt things like that and they may fall. You can also teach them to take there time, get there footing right, etc. That is not helicopter parenting. I know it is important to let children be & not lead them in "play". But play with your kids when they are young especially, climb with them, slide with them, chase them, don't sit on the sidelines! They need it! All the little ones flock to us when we are on the playground. And my husband is always active with our son & other dads see him & start playing with their kids when they didn't have the confidence to play or be silly with them before.

  • Em Posted 27 July 2011 10:59

    Great article. I wholeheartedly agree. I was allowed to get hurt & stretch my legs, and discovered great things about myself.

    Also, I'll add my own note- children need time alone to think.

    The most developing times for my personality and outlook have come from the time I had as a child to sit alone in the backyard and process and contemplate things.

  • Matt Petersen Posted 27 July 2011 16:21

    Everything that a child can learn by climbing a tree or by falling of a rope bridge in the park, can be learned by participating in the sport of wrestling. Kids as young as four years old compete and test themselves physically and mentally as well as learning discipline and social skills.

    You can tell a young kid who wrestles just by looking at them. They don't timidly hide behind their parent's leg when meeting someone new. They are used to being "out there" in front of everyone, accepting who they are.

    Wrestling is an olympic sport for both men and women.

  • Maya Posted 31 July 2011 16:28

    I tend to be more along the lines of you in playground parenting. When my son was younger, I allowed him to roam within sight, and I did get called out on it a few times. Once he tripped and I paused to see whether he'd cry or dust himself off (we actually usually cheer when one of our kids fall, and then if they cry after that we know it's more serious), but before he had a chance to decide on his reaction other moms swooped in and couldn't believe I hadn't sprinted to his aid (he was fine, nary a scratch). I quit going to one play group because the other moms couldn't believe I'd let him climb playground equipment alone or swing in the baby swing…they spent the entire time at the park with their toddlers safely in their strollers.

    Now I keep a closer eye though, because my son now has autism and will run away if I or another adult isn't right there next to him.

  • Jess Posted 31 July 2011 16:57

    Over all, I agree in the value of kids testing out their abilities, learning their limits. After all, those are my three sons' skinned knees in the photo. 😉 But I also agree with the commenters who express other ideas.

    We cannot assume from the reactions of a couple of strangers on the playground what their house is like or what their overall parenting approach is. We don't know their children, their history, their thoughts.

    We also cannot assume that there's any one correct way to encourage children to explore. While many kids seem to know their limits and push them only gently, other kids go charging into danger and may need a little more guidance from their parent. Still other, less confident kids may need some persuasion to try new adventures.

    I've been the parent of the adventurous toddler on the playground, and I generally thank people for looking out for him and sometimes reassure them that he's fine. I've also been the concerned parent on a playground. When in doubt, I try to find their parent and ask if the child needs help. If I can't find a parent, I do often err on the side of caution, guiding the child, although gently and without inciting fear.

    It's OK to let your kid explore, and it's also OK to look out for other people's children. Kids can learn something positive from both!

  • Amanda1007 Posted 31 July 2011 18:15

    I totally agree. I was recently at a splash pad/playground on the beach. i have a 2 year old and a 7 year old, and a 6 month old (baby is attached and the only one i don't need to watch) but my other two are always in a different direction. i parked myself in the middle of the splash pad and playground to watch both…as my 2 year old walked up and down a paved sidewalk on the edge of a drop off. he did this for about an hour. then a new set of moms came and immediately went over to him "wheres mom? let's find your mom" he walked them right over to me where i said "he's fine i was watching him" i walked him back to the walk way and sat back at my post to their dismay! but really leave my kid alone!

  • Mama Birth Posted 31 July 2011 18:36

    Preach it sister!!! I love this article! Thank you- And I do think hand sanitizer sucks!!!

  • Julie Posted 31 July 2011 20:20

    Scraped knees, yes. In our family, a scraped knee is a sign of summer. When I'm scared for my kid, I try to stifle myself, hold back my emotions and try to exude and express confidence in my kids. They look to mom to see if they should feel safe or not.

    BUT, frankly, I cannot afford to fix a broken bone. I've never had a broken bone, my kids have never broken a bone.. That's expensive and has lasting consequences. So I'd run out to that tree, say, "Wow! Look how high you got! That's amazing!! Now come on down, please." Then when they get to the bottom, I'd say, "That makes mom a little nervous. I'd like you to stay at the third branch or lower from now on.

    And I don't do hand sanitizer, I trust germs more than chemicals. But I fear lead dust, so we don't eat off the floor around here.

    So it's true, you can't lump someone into a category like that. People get nervous when they see my kids do certain things, but there are other things that they probably think they should be doing that they don't. I know my kids. I don't need to hold my daughter's hand in a parking lot – she's like a duckling, always at my side and quite wise and cautious about things like cars. This may change, but my son seems a bit more adventurous and confident and I must old onto him to keep him safe.

    I think it's usually good to trust a mom to be an expert in her child's abilities.. which is not what those moms did by the rope.

    But it is also good to realize that often our kids are more capable than we give them credit for, and we should give them chances to amaze us.

  • Ado Posted 1 August 2011 19:41

    I LOVED this post and thank you for writing it! The mother in me sighed with relief from reading it – why? Because it is SO rare for mothers to express this sentiment. We live in such an overly sanitized and germophobic culture now (which is weird when you think of what's on TV that kids can see – violence, sex etc. – yet we must keep compulsively applying that hand sanitizer!!!) – that mothers gang up on their own kind now – for ex. – even you expressing your particular style of parenting elicits angry responses from the mom blogging community! I know you don't mean to say kids should break bones – but that we as moms need to take a few giant steps back and realize that kids are hardy little creatures. I just loved your positive parenting approach – not jumping to her side on that rope was actually probably a harder form of parenting – it would be much easier to run and "save" her – but you didn't, and I didn't see it as neglectful, but respectful in regards to giving her the space to learn for herself.
    Anyway – what a great post!!! Thank you

  • Kiril Varbanov Posted 10 August 2011 7:28

    Excellent article. Once again reminds us that "children are not born suicidal", they are testers.

    There's a thin line between externally introduced fear and encouraging to learn – this line lies on your common sense. Use your brain and think – could it be bad if I do this in long term, or it may be beneficial for my little sweet monster? 🙂

  • MamaKoo Posted 3 September 2011 5:17

    Fantastic article! It made me have such a chuckle, I've yet to find a mother that agrees with my 'free range' children attitude to parenting. People think I'm raising my daughter 'rough' but I just see it as letting her learn about boundaries and setting limits for herself. A good example was when my daughter had just learnt to pull herself up, I would let her roam around the house practicing on whatever she wanted to. My MIL came over and freaked out when my daughter pulled herself up on the coffee table, she rushed over to her in such a fright, "Careful, you'll fall over and knock your head!!" Sure enough she fell over and knocked her head and then came the tears. My MIL also thinks I don't use the word "no" as often as I should. And fyi, I don't think you're being judgmental, you're just painting a picture for your readers.

  • Niki Willows Posted 21 December 2011 8:14

    What a wonderful piece. I have 4 children 20, 20, 17 and 16 and this was exactly how I brought them up. They are all independent free thinkers with creative enquiring minds, two at uni, one in last year of A levels and the other about to go into 6th form. I loved watching them grow and make mistakes and LEARN from them. Only two broken arms (fight over a teddy at Grandmas and swinging of a door frame at school)

    You are so right to say we mustn't hover over children they need to have the confidence to work risks out for themselves and if they are given that chance they will rarely attempt anything where they fall. As you say, that happens when people say 'Oh be careful', 'Mind out' Drives me mad!

    I now work for the LA as a Play Advisor and I shall be using this piece when talking about Risk Benefit assessments to teachers, students and practitioners – thank you!

  • alternative shadow Posted 21 December 2011 8:28

    In Australia we refer to these parents as Black hawk parents. I liked the observation about 'watching children – but watching them to see what they are learning. I often have this discussion with staff at my centre about how some believe the idea of 'play' is just considered as a peripheral activity a 'filler in' between 'eating' and the 'real learning' Yes we know now that that is rubbish. Play is the learning. I have come to the conclusion that we as a society have based a whole lot of what we do when it comes to children is on what we were brought up. I also feel that parents have a lot of pressure on them to be the 'responsible' one and that sadly can mean alot of things to a lot of people including removing every risk, instead of them regarding those as opportunities to grow and gain confidence, independence.

  • momto5 Posted 21 December 2011 9:28

    i am a mama of 6 children. with my first i was very very hovery. and you can see it in her even know 17 years later. she is more timid when it comes to physical things and honestly i feel bad about that. she isn't comfortable in her body and its strength. the more children i had the easier it was to let go and see that they would be ok and they really won't do more then they can handle. my sons climb trees 20 feet tall and although inside i ma freakin out, outside i am cheering.
    yes sometimes they get hurt but they learn that they are ok. my daughter didn't really get to learn that.
    thankfully we have a community that is totally open to free range kids, so i see lots of kids running about testing what they can do.
    as for the hand gel… yuck. i do have some for the van in case we hit a public restroom with no water and soap, otherwise i go by the saying "a little dirt don't hurt". lol

  • Randi Posted 21 December 2011 11:32

    I am very glad I did not get stuck with a helicopter parent who didn't let me get hurt. Kids who don't experience hurt don't learn how to appropriately deal with it.

  • SCD Posted 21 December 2011 12:29

    Strongly recommend that the helicopter parents in these comments go do some reading at freerangekids.com! Great article.

  • Aunt Annie Posted 21 December 2011 12:46

    Hmm, people are being a bit reactive here to the writing style rather than the actual intent- a little bit of hyperbole does help paint a picture clearly.

    I have recently done a major university assignment on risky play and I totally endorse the attitude expressed in this post. Constantly protecting children from the possibility of hurting themselves can cause anxiety conditions and a severe lack of the ability to assess risk in later life.

    Do we really want to bring up neurotic children? Do we really want our children to be assessing risk for the first time when they get their drivers' licenses? I don't think so. The research is out there, and parents need to start listening.

    As for hand sanitiser- it has its place. Its place is in my bag when I'm working in childcare and holding hands with child after child who has a runny nose and no sanitary skills yet.

  • mcswigg Posted 21 December 2011 13:22

    I have a friend with a two year old who follows this same theory of "let my kid do bc he will only do what he CAN successfully do"….he was climbing bleachers at an event,u know bc he can,he wont hurt himself.he fell 5 ft through the bleachers while dad let him experience his own limits.he ended uo with a concussion and excess fluid in his head.he now has a permanent drain in his head that will forever keep him from playing contact sport…..thank u dad for letting ur child follow his instincts…..now where is children's services.absolutely retarded.
    Yea let ur kid try things but u are their only protector and advocate.u need to be more responsible than a two year old who HAS NO CLUE about gravity,the pain of broken bones,and what ultimate pain is AND THAT IS UR JOB AS PARENTS TO TEACH.not to let them teach themselves.
    A friend suggested this blog to me and while I'm sure u have cool stuff,the advice is too ding dongish for me.I'm the parent (like many others ) who are ALSO shaking their head at u and unfortunately saying " Nah.ill spend time reading somethin else.thanks anyhow."

  • Trice Posted 21 December 2011 13:35

    I appreciated this article… I'm due in 3 days and never thought about this aspect of potentially inhibiting your child's self esteem… I'm timid where I wish I wasn't, always letting fear get the best of me, so yeah it helped me realize a diff way I can allow my son to be all he can be without installing fear. I don't think my parents were this way in particular, but I think it was self inflicted doubt that had me. And your own self can be your worst enemy without help from anyone. Maybe more positive encouragement from the parents would've kept some self doubt from creeping in as much as it did. It could be that they didn't take me on because I was middle child with 4 bros, so any time I turned down something challenging, they had 4 ruff n tumble boys who would and I would watch from the sidelines… I guess it was expected that the girl would sit out on certain boy things… Who knows… 1st time I've had this thought process, but it kinda makes sense to me in my life experience…

  • chikky_meow Posted 22 December 2011 18:58

    I totally agree with Jess. It's so easy to jump to conclusions. I think we all do what we can with what we know. The important thing is to not be so quick to exclude other people's input. I know I certainly don't have all the answers. What I think is right thing to do today, in this situation, might be the wrong decision tomorrow. It's all part of the learning experience. Too often, parents are "reactive" when it comes to advice from other people. I have been guilty of this on many occasions. But when I have time to process what happened and reflect on it, I really hope I learned something from the experience. As a parent of a 2 year old, I often wonder if I am doing the right thing with my child. Am I too cautious? Should I be more nurturing? Every decision I make will have a consequence (good or bad), and I also hope my son learns from it, too. I also with mcswigg, as a parent you can never be too careful, it comes with the territory, you are their protector. E.g. my son wants to do everything I do, but he doesn't realise that he can't. As he grows and develops, he will learn his limitations, he is a cautious boy, but not anxious. I really wonder with the mums who object to other mums advice, are you more worried about what other people think of you (e.g. judging you as a bad parent, image etc) or have you really concerned for your child? I would be more impressed with the child saying "it's OK, I can do this" or similarly the parent affirming to the child that is OK because the child has done it hundreds of times before, and thanking the good Samaritan for their help.

  • 3-Sixty Posted 23 April 2013 12:50

    Great response.

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