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5 “Dangerous” Things Parents Should Do to Their Children

When you engage in "risky" behavior, your children are actually safer.

I thoroughly enjoyed Gever Tully’s TED video of “5 Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Kids Do” and agree with his thesis that parents these days are far too protective of their children. Paradoxically, in parents’ well-intentioned attempts at protecting their children from harm, they actually leave them less prepared for the real dangers kids will face later in life.

I also concur that exposing kids to a little danger can be beneficial to their development. Exposure to what are for them risky experiences can build confidence, resilience, competence, respect, and responsibility, as well as develop cognitive, emotional, and motor skills that will help children as they transition into adulthood.

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Of course, it’s easy for Mr. Tully to make this argument when he doesn’t have kids; he doesn’t have the hard-wired “protect your children to ensure their survival” instinct kick in at the first sign of danger.

Though exposing children to Mr. Tully’s tangible dangers offers many benefits, I would argue that the dangers that he wants you to expose them to are far less threatening than they actually are because the potentially harmful consequences are immediate and will surely be mitigated by a watchful—though hopefully not overly intrusive—parent.

In contrast, I would suggest that you can do five things to your children that are far more “dangerous,” yet will have a far greater impact on them as they develop.

Give Your Children Conditional Love

Here is a statement that will be truly heretic to today’s “parent-industrial complex”: Conditional love is good! Like most things in life, unconditional and conditional love are neither good nor bad; it is what you do with them that makes them so.

I’m not talking about what we as parents feel; of course, we always love our children no matter what they do. But rather what children perceive, and I believe that they do perceive loss of love. They don’t know the difference between disapproval and withheld love.

Conditional love that is used to threaten or control your children is bad, for example, when you use what I call outcome love, in which you make your love conditional on your children’s success or failure in school, sports, etc.

Love is your most powerful tool for influencing your children. Rewarding your children—love is really the ultimate form of reward—regardless of their behavior robs them of one of their most important lessons, namely, that their actions have consequences. What more powerful inducement to good action is there for your children than their perceived threat of losing your love?

You can instill healthy values and behavior, such as respect, responsibility, compassion, and generosity, by giving praise—offering love—when your children demonstrate these and showing disapproval—withholding love—when your children don’t demonstrate these values.

Don’t Praise Your Children

 “Good job!” is the most common praise you hear parents giving kids. Yet, it is lazy and worthless praise. The reality is that children don’t need to be told “good job!” when they’ve done something well; it’s self-evident. 

The purpose of praise is to encourage children to continue to engage in positive behaviors. So, if you’re going to praise them, be specific, for example, “You worked really hard on that school project!”, so they see that their great effort is what led to their success.

Unfortunately, many parents have been misguided by the “self-esteem movement,” which has told them that the way to build their children’s self-esteem is to tell them how good they are at everything. But research has shown that students who are lavished with praise were more cautious in their responses to questions, had less confidence in their answers, were less persistent in difficult assignments, and less willing to share their ideas.

Children develop a sense of competence by experiencing success, not by being told they are successful. 

Let Your Children Fail

Fear of failure among children is epidemic in America today. At the heart of fear of failure is the belief that if children fail, bad things will happen, for example, they will disappoint their parents, experience embarrassment or shame, or feel worthless. In a culture of “never good enough” and an economic landscape filled with uncertainty, parents are terrified of their children failing.

Yet, by protecting your children from failure, you are making it less likely that they will succeed. The reality is that the most successful people in all walks of life have failed frequently and monumentally on the way to success. Only by failing can your children learn essential life lessons, such as resilience, perseverance, and problem solving that will ultimately lead them to success.

Let Your Children Feel Bad

As a parent, you hate it when your children feel bad. It tugs at your heart strings when they are afraid, disappointed, or sad. Your natural tendency is to try to make them feel better as quickly as possible by soothing, placating, assuaging, or distracting them from their ill feelings. Yet, in doing so, you rob them of the opportunity to experience, learn from, and, ultimately, master their emotional life.

When you don’t allow your children to experience their emotions, you prevent them from understanding them and figuring out how to deal with them in a constructive way in the future. Your children need to be able to just sit with their unpleasant emotions and ask “Why do I feel so bad?” and “What can I do to get over feeling this way?”

Don’t Give Your Children Your iPhone

Expediency is one of the most dangerous words in parenting. It means doing what is easiest for you, not what is best for your children. You now have more ways than ever to keep your kids entertained and out of your hair. We have truly reached new heights (or should I say depths) thanks to the iPhone, the Swiss Army knife of parental expediency, for dealing with bored or cantankerous children. 

What are the ramifications of children who aren’t left to their own devices (no pun intended) when they don’t have anything to do? Your children may become literally addicted to technology because its frequent use triggers the same neurochemical activity brain as do drugs and gambling.

Children are deprived of the opportunity to get out of their doldrums on their own. And they will struggle when they get bored later in life in the classroom or office. Children may also not learn that sometimes they have to be respectful of others and need to just sit and wait until their parents finish what they are doing.

In conclusion, I encourage you to expose your children to the risky experiences that Mr. Tully advocates. More importantly, though, I urge you to expose your children to truly “dangerous” experiences such as conditional love, no praise, failure, bad feelings, and boredom. These treacherous encounters will surely serve your children well as they begin to experience the many perils that lie ahead in their lives.

Jim Taylor, Ph.D., teaches at the University of San Francisco.

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