It’s Not All Mary Poppins

Risks and Risk-taking

Emily is done her lunch. I remove the tray to her highchair, and lift her. The entire chair comes up with her.

“Oops! Didn’t see the belt under your little fat tummy!”

Which tells you that I don’t always strap the children in, doesn’t it?

Well, not with Emily I don’t. Emily, who just sits and methodically munches through her meal, then says “DOWN!” and waits to be released. Now, Timmy? He gets strapped down every time. Every time. Otherwise, he’d be tap-dancing on the dining table in seconds.

Some risks are not worth taking, ever, of course. Children in my care are always put in CSA-approved safety seats, properly tethered to the floor of the vehicle. Even a gentle fender-bender can be disastrous to the child not properly restrained. Not an appropriate risk.

But, some days our societally-approved caution reminds me of a game you learn in drama class, “Mountain From Molehill”. Game in which someone starts with a mundane problem – “Oh no! I stubbed my toe!” Players take turns in compounding the gravity of the situation: “And if I stubbed my toe, I might have to limp.” And if this, then that, each one worse than the one before.

The limp makes you walk more slowly, and you miss your bus, which makes you late for an important interview, which means you don’t get the job, which means you have no money, which puts you out on the street, which means you have no food, which means you starve. Almost every scenario ends with

“And then I might DIE!”

Fun game, huh??? Well, yes, it is a fun game, when it’s a game. But we’ve turned every single moment of a child’s day into a potential life-and-death moment, and I, for one, am weary of it.

Don’t let your child play with latex balloons…
Don’t lose the corner snipped off the end of the milk bag…
Never leave your child alone with the family pet…
Never let a toddler hold an infant…
Never let the family dog come tobogganing with you…
Always stay within an arm’s length of your child at the park…


Honestly, it’s like living an episode of House.

Strap that child into his high chair or he might stand up and if he stands then he’ll fall, and maybe hit his head and maybe get a concussion or end up in a coma or break his neck…

Or. More likely, he’ll slide forward a bit, get wedged uncomfortably under the tray and learn it’s better to sit still.

It’s a matter of evaluating the likely consequences of a risk. In a car, the tiniest of bumps can have life-threatening consequences for an unsecured child. In my dining room, what are the risks? Really, actually, likely risks? I’m always within a metre or two of the child. I can see if he/she is trying to escape. I can intervene if the child is in danger – but I may very well choose to let the child be uncomfortable for a few seconds before I rescue him. I may even decide to let the child solve her own dilemma, knowing that the discomfort will teach her more than my careful explanations ever could.

Of course, one measures the risks. Timmy is always strapped in. Emily isn’t always. In part, this is pragmatism, not risk management. Timmy is so much more likely to make for the hills, I don’t want to have to be lifting him back eight times a meal. But with Timmy, there is more of a risk, and I judge it necessary to protect him from himself, for at least a little while longer. I’ve been doing this for 12 or so years now, and my own kids over and above that. Not once in all this time, have we had a Serious High Chair Incident.

Risk is part of life. Kids have to learn to evaluate risk, take the ones worth the risk and manage them safely, and avoid the ones not worth the risk. Kids will grow to be adults, who will have to manage risk every day of their lives. Which means we have to learn to let them.

November 13, 2007 - Posted by | parenting, socializing | ,


  1. “Didn’t see the belt under your little fat tummy” – hm, not inviting you to help me out of my chair…

    Yes, I agree with you. Everyone learns by trial and, sometimes, error. And if children are too protected, it’s much harder for them to evaluate risks for themselves, and they may become foolhardy out of ignorance or overcautious and afraid.

    Comment by Z | November 13, 2007 | Reply

  2. “Risk is part of life. Kids have to learn to evaluate risk, take the ones worth the risk and manage them safely, and avoid the ones not worth the risk. Kids will grow to be adults, who will have to manage risk every day of their lives. Which means we have to learn to let them.”

    Exactly so, and very well said. That’s a big part of our job as parents and caregivers, and I feel that not giving our kids the chance to learn this says more about our own fears than about theirs.

    Comment by Florinda | November 14, 2007 | Reply

  3. It’s a difficult balance for my paranoid self, but I’m getting there. The toddler can now walk across the street with me. I adopted your “you must always hold on to the stroller or me” rule. I’m still working on the appropriate response to “Stop!” before he can walk ahead. 🙂

    Also, I hate high chairs. The only reason I used one was because the in-laws bought one for us. I prefer the booster seats that strap on to a normal chair. It’s closer to the table and the ground!

    Comment by Kat | November 14, 2007 | Reply

  4. Z: I’ve seen both those results – “foolhardy out of ignorance, or overcautious and afraid”. These responses are results of differing children’s characters to the same stimuli: over-protective parenting.

    Here’s an extreme of the latter: My daughter has a friend who will tell you she’s allergic to peanuts. In fact, they don’t KNOW that she is, because they won’t have her tested, because that would mean exposing her to the allergen! So she lives her life in a bubble of caution (and she is VERY cautious) against a fear that may be groundless. Weird, or what?

    Florinda: “…not giving our kids the chance to learn this says more about our own fears than about theirs.” I couldn’t agree more.

    Kat: Sounds like cautious you is managing your fears just fine, and allowing your boy sufficient freedom to explore his world.

    I’m not fond of high chairs, either (so much more work!), but as we have benches down either side of our table, not chairs, I have little choice. I can put one booster seat at one end (the other is, unavoidably, up against a wall), so when I have more than one of the “fall-off-the-bench” age, high chairs it is.

    (Ha! Another example of calibrating risk. At a year to 18 months, a bench is too risky; after that, they sit at the bench, and yes, they inevitably tumble off once or twice, but they soon learn to manage themselves.)

    Comment by MaryP | November 14, 2007 | Reply

  5. Amen and amen! The whole no-risk-is-worth-it-no-matter-how-small attitude of our society makes me crazy! Life used to be FAR more dangerous than it is now, and you just can’t eliminate all risk.

    Comment by rosie_kate | November 14, 2007 | Reply

  6. So glad I found your blog! Very entertaining and what good, common sense advice you give. I’m expecting our first 2 kids in March and I already know that I’ll have to forcibly stop myself from being one of those bubble-wrap parents. I know it’s not best for the kids to try to protect them from all things at all times, but I also know my instinct will be to protect as much as I can. Hopefully recognizing that in myself will be at least part of the battle. And oh, yeah, having twins means my attention will necessarily be divided. Thanks again for sharing your excellent writing.

    Comment by Raia | November 14, 2007 | Reply

  7. Rosie_Kate: And since you can’t eliminate all risk, you’d better make sure you know how to manage it. I can think of few more efficient ways to endanger your kids long-term than to prevent any opportunities for them to learn this. Ironic, but true.

    Raia: Twins? You should follow Kat up there back to her blog. She had twins just a few months ago. (What is it now, Kat? Two months? Three?) It would be my feeling, though I d don’t know for sure, that having twins would make it qualitatively more difficult to be a hover-mother. What do you think, Kat?

    Comment by MaryP | November 14, 2007 | Reply

  8. I know I was surprised when I became a parent at just how much child safety stuff there is out there. I mean for goodness sakes, one place sells a foam helmet so they don’t bump into tables or walls. I’m sure my toddler would just LOVE having a foam helmet on all the time.
    And sure I could cover my table edges with hard plastic but I don’t see how plastic in your eye hurts less than wood.
    We are taking the laid back approach to injuries. He’s a boy. He’ll get hurt but I’m always nearby and we’re trying to teach him things that will help him to not get hurt. Like the correct way to go down the stairs (on his belly) and how to get off a chair without leaping. It’s a struggle but I don’t want every tiny bump to be a tragedy.

    Comment by Dani | November 14, 2007 | Reply

  9. That game sounds funny…

    I am a big believer in what you exhibit in the difference between Emily and Timmy – knowing a kid makes a big difference. I don’t worry about things like walking down a street or considering leashes with Pumpkinpie – she’s not a runner, but some are. I let her play with beads and stickers and small toys – they won’t go in her mouth. She is allowed sugar-free gum, I know she will be okay with it. She didn’t climb out of her crib until she was 3.5 years old, so I wasn’t in a hurry to move her out of it, but I know others who had 18-month-olds in beds because of the crib-diving. We have no latches on our kitchen cupboards, oven, fridge, or toilet – she’s fine with them. But we do have them in the bathroom, as well as medicine chests places way up high, because she is fascinated by getting medicine and vitamins, and that is a risky thing for her (plus *truly* dangerous).

    I think it does come down to having a sense of what is risky for your kid and what is not. But it also means learning to back off a bit, which can be tough. I remember nannying two kids and the first time they climbed up the poled supporting the slides, I was scared. But seeing them do it once or twice, I figured I had to let them go to it.

    Honestly, I’m glad Pumpkinpie seems to be growing up to be more of a risk-taker than I was. I was such a cautious child by nature that I think I missed out on a lot of fun.

    Comment by kittenpie | November 14, 2007 | Reply

  10. Yup.

    It’s all just a gathering of risk factors. What is worth risking, what isn’t? It can be paralyzing if you try to consider them all. What a great game for the car that would be..

    Comment by Bridgett | November 14, 2007 | Reply

  11. Oh….indeed! I had parents that hovered over their children and were constantly trying to tell me how to protect them. I am on the boat with you that children need to figure some things out for themselves. Sooo, a day came when the boys (there were 3 of them age 5….one ‘overly protected’) were climbing up the climber. They were stetching their abilities and climbing on the outside. I figured they were fine because my boys did it all the time. Low and behold the ‘overly protected boy’ fell and broke his arm. My one and only major accident in 16 years.
    I learned my lesson. Now, when I get over protective parents, I work slowly to give the children confidence within themselves.

    Comment by Annie | November 14, 2007 | Reply

  12. The twins are almost 6 months! *lol* Time flies, I know. Yeah, I definitely don’t have the luxury of being overprotective with twins (particularly when it’s just me managing them most of the day). But I also have the benefit of hindsight, having a toddler, so that helps. I leave the hovering to the in-laws (drives me nuts!) but it’s gratifying when the see my toddler doing something *daring* (walking down the street with me) and marvel at how well behaved he is. My mother, on the other hand, takes a few too many risks in my opinion. Go figure.

    Comment by Kat | November 14, 2007 | Reply

  13. As usual a great post. I am learning how to assess risks with two such different girls. It is interesting to see the differences, isn’t it.

    I don’t have anything to add to any of these comments! You have many wise readers, too.

    Although I am usually a lurker in the blog-o-sphere, I am being brought out of my shell a bit with NaBloPoMo. Which is to say, I tagged you with a meme.


    Comment by albamaria30 | November 14, 2007 | Reply

  14. oohh this is a difficult one as different children figure stuff out at different ages. I stopped seeing a friend because she wouldnt strap her 6 month old baby into a highchair or pushchair but dumpling didnt get strapped in from about 2 years plus, (pushchair because the straps no longer reached around him!) I let dumpling scooter to school which gives my mum a heart attack but I know he has been riding it for 3 and a half years now and he always wears a helmet, funnily enough the only time he came off it he cut his chin open not his head!

    Comment by jenny uk | November 16, 2007 | Reply

  15. […] adults“? And my further witterings about “risk, risk-taking, teaching them to manage risk“? I live by all that stuff with my own […]

    Pingback by Oh, the Carnage « It’s Not All Mary Poppins | July 6, 2012 | Reply

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