Are you over-protective?

5 July 2011, by Phillip Hodson
Sometimes caring for your child can become a little obsessive. Psychotherapist Phillip Hodson considers the need for kids to take risks

Into every life a little risk must fall. If it doesn’t, your kids will never learn a thing and you’ll turn into Howard Hughes, the once daredevil test pilot who ended up living in an oxygen tent with 22-inch fingernails.

I am of course speaking about relative risk. I don’t personally think it’s a great idea to abandon your babies on mountains like the ancient Spartans to see whether they’ll survive hypothermia and wolves. I’m suggesting something far simpler: that a mollycoddled child is an unprotected child.

Let’s start with Beth, who at the age of one is prone to swallowing dirt. Should you automatically stop her? Answer: only if it becomes her main source of food (then it’s a disorder called PICA). Scientists now say that having a little of this stuff in her stomach is actually going to develop her immune system. So occasionally eating off the kitchen floor is not such a terrible idea.

Moving on to Jason, who’s 10 and making a slide on an icy evening down the garden path only to be screamed at by Dad for trying to murder his entire family. Yes, there are risks. But no, you don’t need to immediately heave salt everywhere. Let him have fun, alert others to the hazard, have a go yourself, fence it off for the postman: manage the problem, because your child needs to discover the difference between danger and adrenalin.

Then there’s Adam, 16 and in a battle with his parents about the school’s camping trip to Cornwall. Yes, these things can go wrong and some teachers are incompetent. Yet infinitely more accidents occur every day in the home, usually in the kitchen and bathroom. Some people actually die falling off the loo. Better to use the time he’s away enjoying a romantic break yourself, or you’ll pass on your tree and grass phobia.

If you could promise to live forever, it would be fair enough to carry on solving all your kids’ problems. But there comes a day in their early teenage years when, from parental love, you must let them make their own mistakes or they’ll never mature. I suggest there are far worse things on earth than a few cuts and bruises.

The great psychologist Alfred Adler once wrote: “Don’t do anything for your child that he can do for himself.” This can lead to problems when your six-year-old refuses to dress for school and you have to lead them down the street in their pyjamas, but that’s another story.

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