It is impossible to put in words how I felt when I first held my pink and tender firstborn. My heart swelled with joy and all my maternal instincts came alive as I held this little person, my own flesh and blood. Then suddenly, for one fleeting moment, I felt a lump in my throat as I thought about the world and its potential to devastate. I instantly felt the urge to safely insert her back into the warmth of my womb. At that moment, I wanted to protect her forever.
Headlines of rapes, murders and kidnappings in unexpected places are unfortunately too familiar. Our reaction is to buckle up and put an unfiltered guard on, keeping our children away from unsafe neighborhoods, knives, windows or anything even remotely dangerous. Protection has become the name of the game.
On the other hand, as modern parents, we infuse freedom in our children’s lives as they become young adults. Freedom to choose a career, travel, and lead the life they want as long as it fits within our acceptable norms. However, this Freedom exists only within the snug framework of our protection. We are always in touch via cellphones, we believe we know everyone they are out with, and we keep them protected from unsafe environments.
In other words, we offer freedom but within this “Disney-world” we have created. A Disney-world that lasts only as long as the duration of our physical presence in the lives of our kids.
While arrested development is the first consequence of this kind of protection, compromise of safety is the second. We all need to wake up and smell the smoke. The fire is not distant.
Does protection ensure safety?
When an individual has limited prior experience with reality, it can lead to impaired judgement.
Poor discretion may become the cause for unfortunate events. During one of my visits to India, I found my six year old sitting on a 12th floor window ledge. Luck was on our side as I spotted her before gravity did. When confronted with what led her to make such a mistake, she responded by saying that she had no idea that windows could be this dangerous. We live in a house in the US with window grills.
Crisis can happen even in commonplace activities especially when children have not been able to develop judgement that only comes with experience. The power of judgement needs to be honed in order to solve unexpected problems, to comprehend danger and to regulate oneself.
When these overprotected children graduate to adulthood and step into this grueling world, two things can happen. They are caught off-guard and very quickly decide to either Withdraw into their shells or Enjoy the new found freedom while winging safety. Both these solutions are less than optimum.
Withdraw into Comfort Zones
When a child has been over protected, he may retract into his comfort zone at the slightest unpleasant worldly encounter. The fear of the unknown makes his mind paralyzed and foggy.
Biologically, fear makes the nervous system operate at a different level and brain function is limited. This makes judgement weak and confidence even lower. It is natural for these individuals to exhibit some kind of anti-social behavior, risk averseness and not be able live life to the fullest.
They become victims of mental disorders like paranoia and depression.
Flying with the Freedom
The bolder ones will fly with their new wings. If luck and parental communication is on their side, they may be able to develop discretion quickly and maneuver through the danger zones.
But most will exploit their freedom and jeopardize their safety. These individuals become the victims that our media loves talking about.
Can we ensure safety?
Even though we can not ensure 100% safety, we can work with judgement and restraint as our best insurance against danger. I want my children to be able to calculate their risks and look before they leap.
Whenever I have tried to delve into the minds of young adults who seem to have a good head on their shoulders, these are the values I see in their upbringing.
Inculcation of Judgement – Alertness to one’s environment is the pre-requisite to safety. Children who have had the opportunity to explore their practical environment beyond just their toys, gadgets and books grow up to have better judgement. We can start young with these simple things –
- Have them help in the kitchen learning to use the stove or knife rather than fearing it.
- Cross the road together, but have them lead the way – asking them to tune into the sights and sounds on both sides
- Allow them to judge; judge whatever they want. When they learn that there is life underlying what they see superficially, you know that they are thinking.
- Get them to buy groceries with you and develop an understanding of prices. Most of our children have no clue, what is more expensive, a tomato or a bottle of shampoo.
- Make decisions with them and not for them. Ask them to think of the consequence of their actions.
- Use public transportation giving them the onus of ushering you out at the right stop
- Visit different neighborhoods and ask them to point out the normal and unusual
- Allow older children to supervise a repair or renovation
- Talk about how different people in their lives make them feel and why
Plenty can be done to activate their minds to think about consequences and develop street smarts. To develop the discretion to know how many drinks are too many, what clothing is appropriate in which environment, to understand the value of money, and listen to their instincts when an invitation smells of danger. Freedom should come with a sense of responsibility.
Self Control – Just because you may have the right to do something does not mean that it is right for you. Exercising some restraint goes a long way in keeping safe. The Indian tradition of fasting or upvas was designed with this concept in mind.
In my opinion, it is ok to ask children to eat one less candy or skip ice-cream when they have a cold. Moderate discipline at a young age trains the brain for self discipline in the future.
The key is to understand the fine line between rights and right!
Communication – Our generation is so well trained to wear their soft voices and best manners while maintaining a steady external facade; that most parents have no inkling of the bruised state of mind of their growing children. It is important we keep our cellphones away and listen to the banter of our children when they are small so they keep talking to us when they are older.
When parents also confide in children and talk openly about their own issues and mistakes, it creates an environment where everyone understands that it is human to err, and it is ok to share your troubles. Our children should be able to knock on our door without fearing backlash when the need arises.
Teaching them to Say No – All parents have certain values that they feel very strongly about and may be tempted to keep their children unexposed to opposing ideas. These values could be anything from vegetarianism, consumption of alcohol, or sometimes even being around culturally different people. Raising my children in America, I very quickly realized that protecting my children from opposing value systems would certainly backfire. So instead, I try to get them to associate strongly with their own identity and value system, encouraging them to say No when the need arises. When our children are happy to be non-conformists and use the power of no, half the peer pressure battle is won.
This also means that we respect our children when they answer to us is non affirmative. When our children are uncomfortable having a play date with a certain friend or a display a strong dislike for a certain type of food, we must inquire but accept their No’s. It will make standing up for themselves much easier.
Respecting Rules – When I was growing up in India, I know there existed a very lenient, almost shameless attitude towards Rules and the Law. Victorious stories about how a cop was bribed, or a long queue was cut or even how a loophole in the law was so easy to find made the front page of social bio-datas. Fortunately, we have come a long way since. When we take the law seriously, our children do the same. Laws and rules are devised to increase safety and reduce chaos. You will be more comfortable sending off a rule-abiding child to college in another town rather than one who takes rules lightly.
I say lets rethink this safety thing. Let’s create a framework where judgement, self control and assertiveness coincide. Let safety become a personal responsibility!