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Why I Let My Toddler Take Risks
My older daughter, who came to us at the age of three-and-a-half years old, has been cautious since the day we met her. If something was hot, she stayed far away. If a slide or climbing structure seemed a bit too high, she didn’t even try it. Her diligence regarding staying away from bodies of water was unmatched. We had it easy, really. Then along came Elvie, and we found out what “polar opposite” really meant. Not only is Elvie unafraid to try new things, sometimes she’ll try things that hurt her a bit before a second time. She wants to conquer things, and she doesn’t factor my anxiety level into whether or not she wants to do something. She will not be stopped, and I finally realized that I need to lighten up on the little things. We’ve always been cautious about safety when it comes to things that are major risks – we’re not going to send her into a backyard with an unattended swimming pool, for instance – but I’ve come to discover that for her, sometimes a little bit of allowed risk is appropriate.
First of all, I recognize that Elvie’s personality is such that the word “no” often means that she’ll try harder to do what we’re forbidding. Redirection will only take us so far, and so I’ve finally landed on a solution. If I can show her how to do what she wants to do in a way that is safer, but still allow her to take a toddler-appropriate amount of risk, she is much more likely to accept the compromise. She is also much more likely to try to do it the safer way the second, third, fourth, etc., times she tries it, thus removing major risk for injury. A flat “no” often just leads to her trying harder to do the forbidden thing, and she’s figured out now how to be sneaky. I’m okay with a little head bump; that happens to all kids. I’m not okay with a concussion. Injuries both big and small can happen in a heartbeat, and I want to direct her toward the smaller risks if she’s going to take some. (And she most definitely is.)
Second, so much of what she does that makes my heart beat a little bit faster, fearing that she’ll get hurt, is exactly the kind of thing that she thinks is most fun. I don’t want to rob her of joy because I am nervous. I want to assess the situation and ask myself what the worst case scenario is, and if it’s just a minor bump, bruise, or scrape, then I need to let her be. She might cry out in surprise when something painful happens, but she is quick to brush it off and is a huge fan of Band-Aids. For Elvie, those little bumps and bruises are worth it for the fun she’s having. If she is not in danger of needing a trip to the emergency room, then I can allow it. Watching her at the playground, I see that her biggest grins come from doing things that are hard for her. She loves conquering things that she seems to know were not meant for her. And even though I might cringe when she’s this close to doing a little face plant, I am also incredibly proud when she does what she has set out to do.
Third, most of the time she is just fine. I consistently underestimate her skills and her strength. Something that looks risky to me is often perfectly fine. I’ve learned a lot about how far she’s come with her gross motor skills and agility simply by sitting back and allowing her to do things I think might lead to trouble. To be honest, it’s often the activities that seem safest that end in tears and a little bit of blood. For example, who knew that refrigerator magnets could lead to a fall that made her bite the inside of her mouth and bleed so much we couldn’t find the injury for a good 20 minutes? Certainly not me. After that, her climbing feats and the playground suddenly seemed a lot more innocuous and manageable.
Finally, I already know that she is incredibly resilient and strong, and that taking risks only reinforces her confidence and her will to keep going. She has been through major illness and major surgery, and she bounces back every time, more quickly than anyone anticipates. While I’m not going to allow her to do something that could land her in the hospital – we’re there enough as it is, thank you very much – I know that her fighter’s spirit will carry her through life’s bumps. If she wants to flex her resilience muscle by taking some risks that lead to fun, that’s 100% fine by me.