Is Too Much Safety Putting Kids at Risk?

by Marc on June 14, 2010

Shortly after we returned from our trip, I saw this car commercial in which a safety-conscious mom loaded her kid up with protective gear – helmet, goggles, shoulder pads, hockey gloves, etc – before handing him a tennis racket and sending him off to practice.

Safety

“It’s OK to be over-protective”, said the announcer. But he’s wrong. Too much safety actually puts kids at risk.

I know it was meant to be a humorous exaggeration – but there’s very real trend of parents becoming so obsessed with safety that some experts fear we’re raising a generation of bubble-wrapped kids, unprepared for the risks and challenges of adult life.

Abby SunderlandAt the opposite end of the risk & safety spectrum are the parents of Abby Sunderland, the 16-year old girl accomplished sailor who was rescued from the Indian Ocean last weekend, after a storm foiled her attempt to become the youngest person yet to sail around the world alone.

Many have accused Abby’s parents of being terribly irresponsible for letting her risk attempting such a dangerous feat, but I’m in awe of the Sunderland family and how they have raised kids so capable and courageous in pursuit of their dreams. (Abby’s brother Zac completed his solo sail around the world last year at age 17)

Most of us take for granted that a 16-year-old is nowhere near ready to face the challenges and responsibilities of adult life – and the vast majority really aren’t.

Maybe that’s only because we’re so concerned with their safety we don’t give them the opportunity to develop the necessary skills and confidence. If we trust our kids to take more risks, will we end up with more teenagers setting world records and fewer twenty-somethings still living at home?

As a parent, I understand the desire to protect children from harm, but I’m also worried about the risk of teaching kids to “play it safe” instead of pursuing their passions and making a difference in the world?

You Can Be Safe and Sorry

Will kids raised to fear and avoid risk grow up to be adults who choose “safe” careers instead of meaningful vocations? Adults who cling to miserable jobs they can barely tolerate rather than risk having to find another one? Afraid to try new things because of the risk of failure?

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

Thanks to many advances in technology over the last century, the world has never been a safer place to explore, yet people are more afraid of leaving their comfort zones than ever. Why is that? Have sensationalized media reports and insurance peddlers made us so oversensitized to danger that we see it even where it doesn’t exist?

Traveling has helped me put safety back in perspective, and I hope it’s done the same for my daughters. In other words, I hope they’ll grow up like Abby Sunderland (but maybe with slightly less dangerous passions!)

Another traveling dad recently said it best, as his family nears the end of their world tour:

If the only thing my kids get out of this year is the instinct to choose passion over safety, then it will have been worth everything we’ve spent, and everything we sold, to make the year happen.

Is it our duty as parents to protect kids from risk, or to help them learn to deal with it effectively through experience – even if it may result in some physical or emotional harm?

Will avoiding risk now make it harder for them to take necessary risks as adults? In our desire to keep kids safe, are we stunting their growth?

These aren’t rhetorical questions – I struggle with them every day, and I’d love to know what you think.

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

June 14, 2010 katz

I’m with you ‘bro cut ‘em loose but keep an eye on them

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June 15, 2010 Pat Hoffmeister

You grew up very “sheltered,” but you stepped out of your safe zone, sold everything, and went on a fantastic trip.

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June 16, 2010 Marc

I guess everyone’s got their own definition of “sheltered” – you & Dad let us do things that would be considered utterly reckless today!

and it took me almost 40 years to step out of my safe zone (better late than never), I hope Hannah & Olivia learn to take worthwhile risks at a much earlier age. I guess that’s the point I’m trying to make.

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June 16, 2010 Sherry Ott

I may not be a parent – but I am always thinking about these things as I see my 6 nieces growing up.
After traveling the world, I too have redefined safety. Because of that I lean towards the “you will never be able to protect them fully from risk, so teach them how to deal with it.”
I love these thought provoking posts – keep em coming!

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June 16, 2010 Marc

Thanks Sherry! I’ll do that!

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June 18, 2010 Nomadic Matt

You are right. You can be safe and sorry. You never know what the world will bring you. No point in living in fear. Just live.

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July 10, 2010 Dee Andrews

Such a thoughtful post, Marc, and one I agree with wholeheartedly. I think living abroad for a year and pushing our travel comfort zone also helped my husband and I realize how over-protective our American culture can be.

We have made some conscious decisions now to let our daughters explore more on their own in our neighborhood. The safety of the backyard is discouraged, and we say get out and meet people and be seen in the neighborhood. They go to the parks near our house, ride their bikes and wander the neighborhood, and they are more than capable and responsible to do this at their 8 and 11 years.

I hope the trend in “helicopter parenting” is on its way out, perhaps more parents of our generation are realizing what we think is safe is really over-protection and giving in to fear. I want my daughters to grow up learning independence, personal responsibility and how to make safe decisions, but that starts with me letting them go.

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July 12, 2010 Marc

Thanks, Dee – I hope you’re right about “helicopter parenting” being on the way out. I love the way you keep encouraging the girls to expand their comfort zones (and yours in the process).

As a kid, I remember spending all day on the weekends and during the summer roaming the neighborhood with my friends – before everyone decided that was too dangerous. Glad to see it’s making a comeback!

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August 4, 2010 Angela

This is one great post to ponder on. Parents should learn to go out of their comfort zone and let the kids enjoy. Though another post would be great, about tips on setting boundaries and how to deal with risks!

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October 14, 2010 GC

there’s a line between allowing kids to be adventurous, and being careless. But overprotecting a child tends to make them unprepared for the moments when you cannot be there to protect them!

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March 14, 2011 Bluegreen Kirk

Yeah parents have to learn to let go kids will make mistakes and learn from them in the process. this commerical actually cracks me up!

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March 20, 2011 perth cbd hotel

I think that the commercial is quite cool. Really nice post though, thanks for sharing.

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March 21, 2011 Mom

Marc, you need to update the pictures of the girls.

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October 3, 2011 Blade @ VIP Hotels

Completely agree that kids nowadays are over sheltered and even over praised for accomplishing nothing…:)

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January 17, 2013 Andy

I think that there is a fine line between being safe than sorry or too much safety. Kids needs a balance to develop their own skills as well.

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July 17, 2013 Kathy @ SMART Living 365.com

I just read this post after following a link from Gabi at The Nomadic Family and wanted to comment. I so agree that although our world is so much safer today than it has ever been, more people are afraid than ever before. I’m afraid it isn’t just parents being over protective–I think it is parents who themselves are very afraid and they are passing that fear onto their kids. When parents feel safe then the children will feel safe too. I have lots of thoughts about this issue and even wrote a blog post about it myself that I titled, “Are You Safe–or Is It Just Another Trick Of The Mind” and you can find it here if you’re interested… http://smartliving365.com/are-you-safe-or-is-just-another-trick-of-the-mind/
Thanks for a provocative post. ~Kathy

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