Nurturing Resilience

Raising children to be competent and caring.

Overprotective Mom wants oak trees chopped down

Her child has a nut allergy and acorns are nuts: How much risk is reasonable?

This is one of those incredible but true modern stories that makes every sensible person cringe, laugh or cry, and school and city administrators act completely irrationally. City of Vaughan, Ontario, engineers and a local school board are seriously considering whether oak trees at the school should be cut down because they produce acorns, which are nuts. And nuts could, in theory, be harmful to Donna Giustizi’s child who attends the school. Of course, her child would have to be forcibly fed one of the bitter acorns, or pushed down and rolled without clothing in piles of acorns to have a reaction. But still, this hyper-vigilant parent is certain that these trees must go so her child can be safe.

I empathize with the fear parents have for their children’s safety, but I would offer Ms. Giustizi some advice: be careful what you wish for. A child who is sheltered from all risk is going to be ill-prepared for life’s future challenges.

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Rather than asking the world to walk gingerly around her child, wouldn’t it make more sense to make the child a little more resilient and teach the child how to avoid the danger, albeit ridiculously small, posed by oak trees? While it is easy to argue “Where will it stop?” and wonder if the entire city of Vaughan would have to be cleared of oak trees, and every child’s home cleared of nuts in case Ms. Giustizi’s child goes for a visit, my point is actually a little more clinical. As I argued in Too Safe For Their Own Good: How Risk and Responsibility Help Teens Thrive, providing our children manageable amounts of risk and responsibility makes them more resilient.

Here’s four simple things for Ms. Giustizi to consider before she asks the school to chop down trees:

  • When you were young, what risks did you take and what responsibilities did you have?
  • Having those opportunities for risk and responsibility, what did you learn?
  • Were those lessons helpful or unhelpful to you later in life?
  • How is your child going to learn these same life lessons and develop the same skills you developed to cope with life’s challenges?

These questions are much the same as those I use in my clinical work. They help parents think less about preventing a problem or stopping a behaviour and more about providing children with developmentally appropriate opportunities.

It’s remarkable when we stop insisting parents put aside their overly protective behaviors and instead focus on what their child needs for healthy psychosocial development. Parents like Donna Giustizi quickly feel much more in control of the threats they perceive. After all, isn’t it better a child with a nut allergy learn how to navigate his/her community safely than be told everyone else will take responsibility to keep the child safe? If the child is worried about a bully force feeding him/her an acorn (I’ve never actually heard of that occurring, but then there is a first time for everything), then how does Ms. Giustizi coach her child to prevent him/her from being a victim (by talking to school officials, keeping a friend/ally close by, by the school promoting a safe school environment, etc.)?

It’s not that we shouldn’t protect our children. But at some point our overprotection can actually take away the risk-takers advantage all children need to grow up successfully.

Michael Ungar, Ph.D., is a family therapist, a researcher at Dalhousie University, and the author of The We Generation: Raising Socially Responsible Kids.

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