Judgement and Danger

One day at the zoo, my boys were clambering over one of the many little animal statues scattered enticingly around. Another child made a move to join in and his mother admonished him sharply. "Don't climb that! It's too dangerous!" I looked at the statue, at my children's enjoyment of that clearly-manageable but exciting physical challenge, and wondered about judgment and danger.

I remember being awed at the physical abilities of my children at a very early age. I tried to control my automatic assumption of danger as they explored. (It's too high for you." "That's not safe.") I certainly stayed close, to notice what they could handle--and be able to respond if they couldn't. They rarely needed me.

My conclusion is that, if we give them a chance to explore form early on, they seem to develop remarkably accurate judgment about what they can and cannot handle. It can be scary for us. I remember when a mother brought her eighteen-month-old to nursery school, and the little girl headed straight for the big slide in the back yard and began climbing up the rungs with great excitement. Her mother's response of "That's too high for you" came automatically, but the other teachers had seen children that age manage the slide fine, so they encouraged the mother to let her child try. Several adults, seeing the mother's fear, positioned themselves to protect the child from danger, and she climbed and slid and climbed and slid with great delight--and no need of assistance.

It was the mother who was having a hard time. She didn't like heights. She didn't like slides. The potential for danger seemed overwhelming, and the urge to protect her child was so strong that it was hard to notice that, in this case, no protection was needed. Her judgment call was based on her own fears, and simply didn't fit that situation for that child at that time.

We can't ignore the possibility of danger, or our role in protecting our children from it. But out goal is not to make children afraid of dangerous things. When you're afraid, you don't think well. Our goal is to give them the information, confidence and experience to manage situations that might otherwise be dangerous.

If we are always the ones to make judgment calls for our children, they may carry our warnings around with them wherever they go, and limit what they try. While this may be convenient for us in the short run, they end up never knowing what they can actually handle. Or they may react against our judgment ("She's always trying to hold me back. If she says something is dangerous, I want to try it!"). This perspective can also bring trouble. Both are non-thinking responses. Neither one leaves the child flexibly capable of figuring out new things for herself, based on what she knows to be her own abilities.

Children are eager to make their own judgments--it's a chance to flex their muscles and use their power. If we don't allow them enough space in which to do their own judging, we'll have to deal with that power issue on different ,and perhaps more difficult, terrain.