What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?Vincent Van Gogh
As a father to both a boy and a girl, I’m acutely aware that we want to raise them both the same way. There’s no way we’ll manage exactly, we learned a lot with S that we’re now not doing with E, but one area is about allowing sensible risk taking.
One TED talk truly struck me shortly after S was born by Caroline Paul, titled “to raise brave girls, encourage adventure”. The gist of the talk is that we equip boys with skills at an early age of how to do things like climb a ladder by focusing on how to do it, but with girls, typically the focus is on caution and not pushing your limits.
Biologically, until puberty, girls are typically bigger and stronger than boys so the historical approach is deep rooted in sexist roles rather than capability.
Our answer is to treat every child similarly, and encourage their sense of adventure and risk taking by equipping them with skills and knowledge ahead of setting boundaries.
Here’s four principles we follow to help us along.
No Fear – Don’t let your children learn from your fear
More than a popular 90’s sports brand, showing fear in front of your toddler is a sure fire way to create fears. In fact, show bravery in the face of adversity and challenge, and you’re much more likely to have a ‘can do player’.
It’s not the big stuff like going on a road trip, or camping in the wild that makes the difference though (it helps) but the little things. I can think of no better example than Monique. She is literally terrified of spiders, running shrieking from the room terrified even of a money spider. However, if S is around, she will quietly and calmly point out the spider, catch it in a container and move it somewhere safe.
How, is a question of desire. Monique really doesn’t want S to be scared of spiders, she realizes the fear is not rational, and this overrides her desire to run screaming. These occurrences happen so often, it’s massively important to show curiosity and desire to learn and not let your amygdala take control. She will run screaming to me if S is asleep though…
Try new things as a family – Adventure together
As a couple, Monique and I didn’t really go for heights or climbing, but since we became parents, we seem to have started a sideline as climbing instructors. S was not the most co-ordinated toddler, but as he’s grown over the last year, he’s got a lot stronger, and his desire to climb rocks and trees has grown.
Now neither of us is an expert, Monique is afraid of heights and I’m so tall, I typically can’t get around tree branches/rocks without knocking myself out, but we’ve taken an interest because S wants to climb trees. It’s not about climbing a mountain face (though I am tempted now), but it’s about teaching S (and E when she’s older) about three points of contact, asking if he feels secure, and pointing out useful foot and hand holds.
If he progresses to rock climbing (please don’t let him be the next Alex Honold), then we’ll go do a climbing course as a family. There’s nothing S likes to do more than take on a new challenge as “Team Matty”.
“I’m a Firestarter, twisted Firestarter” – teach skills to be safe and let your children show they can be trusted
So first lesson on the road, and we knew already is that S is really interested in fires. Specifically in making camp fires and toasting marshmallows on them. This is a little scary to start, but the key point is, you never leave a child unsupervised with a fire, so why not involve them in the process to help them understand the risks and how to manage them.
So I always involve S in gathering the wood, and help him pick dry wood, kindling and fuel and make piles near our firesite. For the first month of the trip, he would then build a parallel fire to mine, but after a few weeks of watching, S was able to build a cabin style fire stack for me, with tinder in the middle, then kindling and fuel by the side.
We don’t allow matches yet, but once lit, S is allowed to add wood to the fire supervised. He can also push around logs (with another log) and to toast his own marshmallows on a stick. Is he always careful? no but he gets better the more exposure he has. He’s never burned himself because he’s allowed to get close enough to the fire to feel heat, but not enough to burn him.
We did introduce him to smokey bear, which put the fear of god into him, and means he always hands matches to one of us and he always has a bucket of water at the ready.
The key point here is that at some point, when he’s a teenager, he’ll be out camping or goofing around and want to light a fire. He’ll have 15 years of building safe fires in the open, and how to deal with them safely, rather than being in fear of them.
If it’s too much for you – phone a friend
So I mentioned above that S has started to enjoy climbing things and neither of us are great climbers, so it was awesome when we met up with our friends Andy and Shirin in Utah. We went on a hike through some lava fields and there were a few accessible lava tubes.
Andy, while not a climber, is very comfortable with some obstacles (having participated in the world obstacle course race championships). So he helped Monique and S climb down into some lava tubes and experience something we couldn’t of done with just the four of us (I had E on my back in a frame carrier).
S got to see his mum do something cool, found a new hero to follow around (“Andy help me with this, Andy can I climb this, Andy look at me!”) and is now so confident trying our climbing on his own. So if you know you’ll be afraid of something and you don’t want to pass on your fear, find a friend and get some help.
Children aren’t born with fear, they develop it through observation and experience. If you want them to grow up knowing how to take healthy risk (and let’s be honest, healthy risk is an important skill), you need to model it for them, even if it makes you uncomfortable. Our goal in life should not be to avoid things that make us fearful, but to learn to be courageous in the face of fear.