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Lighten up! Taking risks can motivate kids

In her new book, "Drive," Janine Walker Caffrey outlines nine steps to help parents encourage their children to be resourceful and ambitious, starting at a young age. In this excerpt, she writes about why sheltering kids too much can keep them from pursuing goals.
/ Source: TODAY books

In her new book, “Drive,” Janine Walker Caffrey outlines nine steps to help parents encourage their children to be resourceful and ambitious, starting at a young age. In this excerpt, she writes about why sheltering kids too much can keep them from pursuing goals.

The plastic bubble
Have you ever watched a coming-of-age movie like "Stand by Me," "Now and Then" or "The Sandlot"? These movies include groups of children playing and having adventures together. The characters are presented with great challenges and work together to resolve the matter at hand. They are without adult supervision for much of the time. They don’t have cell phones or any contact with adults who can help, so they must rely on themselves and their own instincts to solve problems. These children take great risks as they navigate through the dangers and end up growing tremendously through their experiences.

While problems in these movies are more extreme than most children will ever experience, they illustrate beautifully how adversity, challenge, and risk help us grow. It is no accident that these movies are usually set in the early 1980s or before. During those times, children were expected to roam free. When I was growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, we were not allowed to come into the house until dinnertime! We had to play with our friends and invent our own fun. Some of my fondest memories of my preteen and early-adolescent years involve riding bikes through our neighborhood, climbing trees, walking along creeks, and even finding dinosaur bones in the park down the street. We chased dogs, watched the neighbors who we believed were in the mob, invented stories, and imagined vivid scenarios that involved heroes and villains. Yes, there were some bumps and bruises along the way; we made some mistakes and did get into trouble occasionally. But I credit these experiences with helping me become more self-reliant and independent.

In contrast, many of my students spend their afternoons differently. Steven, age thirteen, comes home every day after school at about three thirty. He gets off the bus and uses his key to get into the house and locks the door securely behind him. The first thing he does is call his mom to let her know that he is home safe. Then he turns on the TV and either plays video games or watches cartoons while he munches on snacks until his mom gets home, at about five thirty. Steven has been engaged in this after-school latchkey ritual since he was about ten years old. He knows how to keep himself safe by not answering the door or letting anyone know that he is home alone. Steven likes this schedule, and Steven’s mom feels confident that he can handle being alone in this way. She thinks it is helping him learn to be self-sufficient. But is it?

While it is important for kids to check in with parents, so their parents know where they are at all times, they still need the freedom to do things outside and explore within a set of boundaries. Steven’s house acts like a plastic bubble, keeping him from the potential dangers of the outside world. If he were outside, he would be in great peril from strangers and the physical injuries that can come from skateboarding, bike riding, tree climbing, and all the other things that boys tend to do when left to their own devices. He may get into arguments with other boys or, even worse, his mother fears, engage in very dangerous behavior such as smoking or drinking. And what if he were to get abducted?

Parents today are fearful of allowing their children small moments of unsupervised time and even more fearful of allowing them to roam free with a roving gang of kids. We want to do all we can to keep them safe. Why, there are perverts and drug dealers out there, outside the plastic bubble of home. I often hear things like “The world is so dangerous today. So many things can happen.” Well, the truth is that the world has never been safer. Children growing up in typical neighborhoods in the United States enjoy an incredible level of safety. Studies show they are not more likely to be abducted today than they were in previous generations. The truth is that the rate of stranger abductions has not increased, and it is possible that it has declined. However, due to the advent of global twenty-four-hour cable news networks, we see images of missing children near and far replayed over and over again each time it happens.

According to the 2005 NISMART report from the U.S. Department of Justice, there are only about 115 cases of child abduction in our entire country each year. Although this is 115 too many, it is certainly not the epidemic that many of us believe it is. Keeping our children indoors for fear of abduction by strangers is very much akin to keeping our children off airplanes for fear of a crash — which is very rare indeed — or out of cars for fear of an accident. Parents who really want to protect their children from harm should in theory keep them out of automobiles, right? That is where many, many children die each year. But of course, we would never do that. Our kids wouldn’t be able to get to school or soccer practice or any of the other activities that teach them so much and help them grow.

The parents’ challenge today is to recognize the many dangers of the world and to equip their children to do the same while instilling the confidence and self-reliance that are necessary to become independent, productive adults who live away from home. We can think of children, adolescents, and young adults as developing butterflies and take some cues from the metamorphosis that occurs from egg to caterpillar to flight.

The caterpillar: Late elementary through middle school
I think of elementary and middle school as the caterpillar years. When the caterpillar larva is developing, it goes through four or five periods known as “instars.” Every time it prepares to go into the next instar phase, it must shed its skin so that it may expand and grow. With each instar, the larva moves further and further from its place of origin in search of more food. Eventually, it begins the prepupal stage in preparation for the creation of the chrysalis. The caterpillar continues to wander until it finds exactly the right location to begin its metamorphosis.

School-age children, particularly those in middle school, need opportunities to shed their skin and find a safe place to begin establishing their identity. This is why young adolescents begin experimenting with their hair, clothing, language, and other forms of self-expression. They are discovering who they are and what they be­lieve. They are learning to associate with others with whom they can identify and will even alter their own appearance to fit in with their crowd. This is how they stay safe emotionally. Similarly, caterpillars try to find a place to blend in with the environment to keep pred­ators at bay as they are making the change into creatures capable of flight.

Parents must help their young caterpillars through what can be a very painful process, allowing their children to make mistakes and grow along the way. The following are some suggestions:

Allow your child latitude with fashion and hair when possible. Learn his school’s dress code, and establish standards of modesty within your own family. Outside of these rules and standards, allow your child to create his own identity through fashion. Don’t get too hung up on hair and clothing. Hair grows back. Be stricter about things that will cause permanent changes to your child’s body, such as tattoos or piercings. Anything short of that, within reason, can be healthy for your child to experience.

Establish places where your child can develop independent mobility. For example, are there any stores or other public places where your child can ride his bicycle from your home? Help him set up excursions with his friends that don’t require parental supervision. Teach him to stay in groups, as abductions are not likely when there are several kids together, and not to accept any rides or items from strangers. Equip him with a phone so he can call you when he gets to his destination and when he is on his way home.

Encourage your child to take risks by requiring her to participate in a limited number of scheduled activities. You don’t want to overschedule her (more about that in a later chapter). Have her try one new thing in sports and the arts each year so she can find a place to fit in and take risks. Ensuring participation in sports and the arts will help her explore lots of different things. Be sure she understands that she needs to commit to each activity she chooses, and require that she finish it. By doing so, you will be teaching your child the value of trying new things and providing her with built-in adversity that she must overcome.

Face a new fear with your child. Go on a scary roller coaster, or learn something new that you may have thought was risky before. Talk to your child about fear, and experience the joy in overcoming it together.

Seek out a new adventure with your entire family. Try camping, scuba diving, rock climbing, or anything that would be completely out of the realm of your past experiences. Let your child watch you take risks and rise above adversity.

Enroll your child in babysitting classes where he can learn first aid and CPR. These are offered through the Red Cross, the YMCA, and other community groups. Such classes help young people develop the confidence they need to take care of others who are younger and will help you feel more comfortable leaving your child home alone.

Find ways for your child to have outdoor interaction with peers after school. You might be able to trade off days with neighbors to be home at that time. The middle school years are the most important time for you to be there when your child gets home from school. Ideally, a preteen should be able to move around the neighborhood with friends and bop in and out of the house for refreshments, to tell you a story, and so on. If you can’t be there yourself, consider getting a neighbor to help or even hiring someone for this purpose. A college student who can function as more of a big-brother figure than a babysitter works well.

Above all, never let your child give up anything just because it gets tough. Be very careful not to instill your fears into your child throughout this process. Yes, she will probably fail from time to time. She may become embarrassed or stressed or nervous or upset. But don’t let her quit. A child who learns to finish things will learn tenacity and commitment. She will learn to get things done in school, on the job, and in life, regardless of the obstacles that are put in her way.

Excerpted from "Drive: 9 Ways to Motivate Your Kids to Achieve" by Janine Walker Caffrey. Copyright (c) 2008, reprinted with permission from Perseus Books Group.