Nurturing Resilience

Raising children to be competent and caring.

Children Should Play in the Street

Mother of two arrested for letting her children ride their scooters on road

Tammy Cooper, the mother of two children ages 6 and 9, was charged with child endangerment and jailed when she let her children ride their scooters in front of her house on a quiet cul-de-sac in La Porte Texas. A neighbour called the police, who supposedly checked with a prosecutor before making an arrest to ensure criminal charges could be laid. Obviously, there is a serious problem here…When we put people in jail for such inconsequential acts, when we abuse the power of the police, and of course, when we completely misunderstood children’s developmental needs.

Let’s be clear: children need to ride their scooters on the street, where there are cars, if they are going to grow up and be good problem-solvers capable of making decisions for themselves with the common-sense necessary to cope with life’s messes. In my book Too Safe for Their Own Good I argue that we are much too focused on keeping our children safe and far less focused on providing them with the developmental building blocks they need for a lifetime of resilience. Rather than protection, our children need the “risk-taker’s advantage.” That’s the skills our children develop when they are given manageable amounts of risk and responsibility.

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That means playing on the road when it is reasonably safe to do so. That is how they figure out on their own how to behave to keep themselves out of harms way. A car is coming down the road…pull to the side and wait until it passes. Do a shoulder check before veering from the curb. Before you try any tricks, consider how hard the pavement will be when you hit it. How exactly are children in La Porte Texas, or anywhere else for that matter, going to learn to survive in traffic if they don’t slowly  have opportunities to create the psychological scaffolding they need to understand the consequences to their actions. Survival skills are not something a parent tells a child. They are something a parent coaches a child to learn through lived experience.

There are other remarkable elements to this story. All over the world, when I study what makes children resilient, I see a pattern. For example, older children being given some responsibility for younger children. A nine-year-old should have been able to coach a six-year-old on how to scooter safely. Not that it was necessary. According to media reports, Ms. Cooper was reportedly outside watching her children, which was already more supervision than might have been necessary given the real level of risk present in that quiet, traffic calmed suburb.

In psychological terms, we’ve known for a century that children who are pushed slightly beyond their comfort zone and given opportunities to fail in ways that won’t have long-term consequences, are children who do much better in life. But, as their caregivers, we need to give children opportunities to encounter danger and learn the rules for survival. A child who has never rode a scooter on a quiet street is a child ill-prepared for driving a car, much less walking to school and crossing a busy intersection. The risk-takers advantage is something we are psychologically and biologically driven to experience for ourselves. Far better to take risks when the danger is small and we are supervised than when we are older and unsupervised.

Let the children play, even if that is on the road when that road is reasonably safe.

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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