Watching my three-year-old scale the “rock-climbing” wall at the playground, I bite my tongue. I don’t want him to fall, of course. But neither do I want to discourage him from trying this new piece of equipment. Instead, I want him to explore his world enthusiastically. I want him to feel safe enough to climb high, good enough at assessing risk to know what is too high, and gutsy enough to pick himself back up when he inevitably does fall.
But as all parents know, it’s a difficult balance. It’s especially true now, when American society wants to bubble-wrap our kids and control their every moment.
So how can you find this balance?
Embracing these ideas in our parenting I think have made my son more willing to try new things and appreciate a wide diversity of people and experiences than he would have otherwise.
Providing the physical, emotional and mental space to explore.
If children’s schedules, minds and hearts are too wrapped up in scheduled activity, they won’t have the opportunity to play freely and discover new things. If community structure or parental oversight limits kids’ ability to roam, they won’t develop independence. If parents discourage children from trying new things, children will stick with the familiar.
In contrast, if children have the space to wander (both physically and mentally), they can find amazing things on their own. They can develop an inherent love of learning and experimentation that will help them be innovative throughout their whole life, not just in school. They can develop an appreciation for new things and diverse people. They can find their personal areas of refuge where they can reflect on who they are and where they want to be in the world.
Research has found that allowing children free time leads to learning for young children more than structured and adult-directed activity. In addition, it also helps children better develop their executive functions that regulate thoughts and actions. Spending unstructured time in nature brings a whole host of benefits, including improving cooperation, imaginative play, and increased physical fitness.
Rather than lambasting helicopter parents, this is a call for our society to give kids more freedom and trust them to use it well. Many neighborhoods are unsafe to let children roam, because of traffic, crime, or paranoid neighbors. In addition, many parents feel so much pressure from others to over-schedule their kids so they’ll have the types of opportunities that seem necessary for kids to pursue their dreams.
Creating a safe “home base” to return to.
Letting kids wander is only half of the equation. What may be an adventure can quickly grow scary if you don’t have a safe place to come back to. Child-proofing aside, I focus on providing an emotionally safe space for our children. We work hard to listen to them, respect their feelings, and show them unconditional love. We draw quite a bit from the “positive parenting” philosophy, especially the excellent book How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk. We want them to know that they can always come back to us, no matter what happens.
Teaching them how to understand logical consequences and evaluate risk.
Part of safely exploring is understanding the risks of a situation. We want them to be able to clearly think and plan out, “If I do X, then Y may happen and Z is how I’ll deal with it.” In addition to protecting themselves, logical consequences help children take responsibility for their actions rather than parents doling out punitive punishment. Being able to consider the ethics and potential outcomes of an array of situations rather instead of a strict set of rules builds a foundation for lifelong resilience.
Seeking out a variety of experiences the whole family will enjoy.
I think “family time” should have the potential to actually be enjoyable for everyone. I want to lead by example with my own joy instead of slogging through something because it’s “for the kids.” I refuse to bring my kids to things I know I will hate, like terrible movies full of unfunny fart jokes (funny fart jokes are a different matter) when there are so many things that all of us can like. I admit that I have a higher enjoyment level of kids’ entertainment than many adults (see my love of children’s literature and Doctor Who). But we do a disservice to children when we tolerate junk just because it’s “for kids.” Similarly, I refuse to limit my children’s experiences to things designed exclusively for them. We seek out a mix of experiences, with some oriented more to adults (art museums) and some more to kids (Sesame Place), but all with the potential for everyone to have fun.
Minimizing the amount of “stuff” in our lives.
Having too many physical possessions can get in the way of building healthy relationships and seeking out amazing experiences. Research shows that spending money on experiences rather than possessions leads to more happiness in the long run. As a parent, you can build much more long-lasting memories traveling or even taking day trips than buying toys, a big house, or other material goods. In addition, the more things you own, the more you have to clean. I despise cleaning, mainly because I’m always thinking about all of the fun things I could be doing instead.
Minimizing inputs that dull appreciation for other types of activity.
As much as I love my computer and phone, we minimize screen time for the kids. Defaulting to electronic media when kids are bored doesn’t give them time to be creative. Similarly, if you’re used to a constant barrage of stimulation, sitting still to read a book or just listen to the birds is challenging.
Treat everything as a learning experience but not an academic one.
You don’t need special “educational” toys or classes for your kid to learn if you treat everyday life as an educational opportunity. Sprout learned counting and his ABCs from reading alphabet and counting books like Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. When we’re on walks, I point out different ecological features and discuss the animals that may live there. When we garden together, he builds his gross motor skills (watering the plants rather than his feet), learns plant biology (seeds to plants to flowers to fruit), and practices his colors (only eating the red tomatoes, not the green or orange ones!). While visiting art museums or concerts won’t teach him to be a world-class musician or artist, I hope that it builds appreciation for these subjects. Most importantly, learning things organically will itself cultivate a sense of natural curiosity. That’s a skill that will never fail him.
Lead by example by valuing diversity yourself
This is perhaps the most important part of my philosophy, as children learn far more from watching their parents’ actions than listening to what they say. I actively seek out new perspectives and experiences, including new foods and travel. I try to respectfully listen to people who are very different from me. Besides my actions, I use examples from my own life to encourage Sprout to try new things. When he was scared to go in the ocean, I told him about how taking a trapeze class was both terrifying and amazingly fun.
If you’ve read my blog for a while, you’ll recognize a number of similarities to the post “An Outdoor Guide’s Guide to Parenting.” This is a bit more cohesive understanding of the principles I laid out there.
Unlike some parenting philosophies, I don’t see this as black and white. There is a place for old familiar habits and places we return to year after year. You also don’t need to travel to other countries or the rural backcountry to explore; you can find so much in your own backyard or city. Explorational parenting is more of an attitude and approach than a prescriptive list of activities. I hope this helps you think about how you and your kid to get out and explore more!