Don’t Fear Boredom

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If your kids have never uttered the words, “I’m bored!” to you, then you can go ahead and skip this post. Chances are, though, that you’ve heard the phrase many times, often vocalized in a whiny voice and accompanied by floppy arms and sagging shoulders for dramatic effect. While every parent dreads those hearing words, I’m here to tell you something you might not have heard:

Don’t fear boredom.

 

In fact, I would tell you to celebrate and embrace boredom! Before you conclude that cabin fever has finally succeeded in knocking me clean off my rocker, here are a few reasons why boredom is a good thing.

Boredom boosts creativity.

Bouts of boredom often precede periods of great creativity. It makes room for that lightbulb moment. It’s in these moments that kids come up with the next epic backyard game, the ultimate blanket fort, the elaborate LEGO creation, or the best stories. Instead of fearing boredom, think of it as a palate cleanser. It prepares your kids for a really great play experience.

Boredom builds the skill of self-entertainment.

One of the biggest frustrations as a parent is a child who won’t play independently. Experiencing the feeling of boredom and the subsequent triumph of solving the problem by themselves builds confidence in kids. It helps them discover the things they really enjoy, and sets them up for a life that is fulfilling and well-rounded. It removes the crutches that hinder so many adults, who panic in a situation where outside entertainment from TV, movies, or smart phones is removed.

Boredom combats FOMO.

Have you ever heard of Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO)? We might laugh at the Fear Of Missing Out (of Football) commercials, but FOMO is a real thing. It’s a form of social anxiety, exacerbated by our dependence on being connected all the time. Whether it’s seeing the newest toy advertised on television or obsessively checking Facebook to see what your friends are doing without you, it sucks away the ability to enjoy what we have in the now. Being able to fill down time with things you enjoy, without depending on other people or things to provide the entertainment, is a tremendous self-soothing skill. It also helps  kids learn to be 100% present in the moment, versus being entertained through distraction.

Great, you’re thinking. Now I know why I shouldn’t fear boredom, but how do I embrace it?

Build space in the day for unscheduled play time.

When we jump from one activity right into the next, we don’t leave any time for boredom. As painful as that period can be when the kids find they have nothing to do, it has to exist for imaginative, open-ended play to develop. Just as kids need good food and sleep, they need unstructured blocks of time built into their day for optimal development.

Don’t jump in when boredom strikes.

For years I was guilty of being the cruise ship director of entertainment for my kids. Especially in the summer, I packed activities into our day, and was always quick to come up with suggestions for what they could do next. Don’t get me wrong – it’s not bad to spend time with your kids. Reading, playing and crafting together is great for bonding and builds wonderful memories. However, the moments when you play with your kids are just one piece of the parenting pie. If you jump in immediately with suggestions when they’re bored, they’ll never exercise their own decision-making muscles, nor will they get to experience the joy that comes from discovering the next great thing to do on their own.

Remove crutches.

For my kids, any kind of screen is a crutch. It’s their number one choice for entertainment. Beyond saying no, I’ve found it very helpful to remove the screens from their field of vision – out of sight, (mostly) out of mind. Maybe your presence is the crutch. Try busying yourself with something out of their line of vision or out of hearing distance. Many times my kids are just too lazy to find me, so they turn to themselves or each other for entertainment.

Add inspiration.

Wherever your kids like to play, make sure there are a few items that encourage open-ended play. I keep books they like both in their rooms and in the family room. Blocks, LEGOs, fort-building items, dolls, action figures, cars, and props for dress-up and pretend play are wonderful toys to keep handy. Don’t forget outside toys, either. Gather sticks in an area of the yard so they can build shelters. Have items available for sand and water play. Bikes, scooters, balls, squirt guns and bottles, jump ropes, and chalk are great ideas, too.

Don’t feel like a failure.

I used to feel like the worst mom when my kids would say they were bored. There I was, staying at home for them, and I couldn’t even keep them properly entertained! Remember when I said playing with them is just one piece of the parenting pie? Just as they need to fill their days with an assortment of activities, so do you! Whether you have work that needs to get done or you set aside time to do something you enjoy, making the kids play on their own while you do your own thing is not neglect!

The next time the kids tell you they’re bored, don’t fret. Congratulate them (and yourself) for stumbling on the gift of boredom.

Are your kids frequently bored, or do you feel as if you’re always on the go? What’s your reaction when they tell you they’re bored?

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Good Question: Is There Such a Thing As Youth Recreational Sports Anymore?

Is there such a thing as recreational sports anymore?

Shortly after the Christmas tree comes down and we trudge through the second half of the school year, the spring sport registration season begins. For years I was blissfully unaware this was even a thing.

We gave soccer a try when Elena was 5 and quickly realized it wasn’t for her. She was happier picking dandelions behind the goal, and we were happier not having to scramble to the soccer fields twice a week with an infant in tow, and so we shelved the idea of team sports for a few years.

In the meantime, Elena has been content to choose a few activities here and there – Girl Scouts, the school musical, Math Bowl team – and not participate in any sports. And when we did opt to try an athletic endeavor again, it was summer swim team at our local pool. It was just our cup of tea. The coach was laid back, there was little pressure to win, the season was short, and Elena could ride to and from practice by herself.

Recently she’s noticed that most of her friends are involved in some type of competitive sport. It’s been tough sometimes to find a friend to hang out with on the weekends, because many of them are at tournaments or traveling with their team. And while I still don’t think she’s really interested in playing a particular sport, she is aware that she’s missing out on the sense of belonging and comradery.

She mentioned that she’d like to try softball, so I looked into signing her up for a spring league. I was very quickly discouraged. At her age, the teams are by try-out only. She’s never picked up a bat in her life. Say by some minor miracle she’s placed on a team (I couldn’t tell if they take everybody or not) – how will she fit in with girls who have been playing for years? The same goes for soccer, volleyball, and basketball.

It seems that by choosing to spend her elementary years out of organized sports, we’ve effectively cut her out of participating in team sports for the remainder of her school career – at least in the sense that she can learn and play with others at the same level as her.

Would we choose the same path again? With her, probably. While I’m temporarily frustrated for her, and she’s moderately disappointed, we both agree that life was pretty good without organized sports. The majority of her time after school and on weekends was spent playing, unconstrained by time or other obligations. We ate dinner as a family nearly every night of the week. Will we choose the same path with Eli? I don’t know. He plays basketball at the YMCA right now, one Saturday a week. We signed him up for his first soccer experience this spring, with one practice during the week and one game on the weekends. It feels manageable, and he loves team sports in a way Elena never did. He has fun with the other kids and hangs on his coach’s every word. Will we have a  hard decision to make should he pursue a sport and it becomes too competitive for our liking? Definitely.

It does make me sad for families who feel they have to choose between organized sports, with the hectic schedule and increasing competitiveness, or an unscheduled, less ambitious early childhood. I wish we could return to a time when youth sports didn’t ramp up until you were in middle school or even older.

How have you fit organized sports into your family’s life? Do you see benefits that trump the inconvenience? Have you been able to find less competitive leagues? Or do you think it’s better for your kids to sit the whole thing out?

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5 Ways To Foster Independent Play At Home

Foster independent play

Last week I talked about our near break-up with LEGO. That experience led me reflect on the impact we, as parents, have on our kids’ play habits.

It seems simple enough doesn’t it? Give the kids some free time and plenty of toys and they should be able to play independently for hours. Well, maybe it’s that simple in your home, but not in mine. Had you raised this idea to me five years ago, I would’ve wondered what on earth you were talking about. Of course kids naturally know how to play! Fast-forward a few years and I realize my rookie parenting mistake – no two kids are alike, and no two kids play alike.

Elena could entertain herself in just about any situation. If she had a friend to play with, all the better. If not? She was equally happy. She spent her early years playing in homes where toy real estate was at a premium. Neither of the homes we lived in previously had rec rooms or basements. Toys were kept either in her room or the family room. In both homes, the main living area was an open floor plan, so if she was playing chances are one of us was nearby to facilitate play and keep her company. However, she has always enjoyed her own personal, quiet space. Playing with toys in her room was just as pleasurable, if not more so, than playing where we were.

Eli, on the other hand, has always needed more help to play independently. He prefers to play with someone else, and if he doesn’t have a playmate, he wants to play near wherever the adults are. He’s also pickier about the kinds of activities he enjoys. Where Elena always enjoyed crafting, puzzles, or looking at books, he prefers sports, games and role-playing activities.

Last spring, we moved to a new home with a basement. I envisioned the basement as a kids’ oasis, and put nearly every toy we owned downstairs. After a few months, I was perplexed. The kids rarely played down there. Unless they had friends over and specifically wanted to play something in the basement, they only ventured down if we made them. We had a basement full of toys, yet when given free time my kids would choose to sit on the couch upstairs and play on the iPad or watch TV every single time.

The success we had in moving the LEGO bins from the basement to Eli’s room forced me to think about how and where kids play. Why don’t they play a certain way, whether it be independently, imaginatively, or artistically? And why, we when have so many perfectly wonderful toys, do they not play with them?

These questions really vexed me. I want my kids to choose play that is both fun and good for their development. I want them to draw, build, and use their imaginations. I had to ask myself: am I setting up our home for show or for living?  I don’t like toys strewn about and I don’t like clutter.  But while out of sight might give me peace of mind, it also seems to put opportunities for free play out of my kids’ minds.  If the TV and the iPad are the only things that are easily accessible in our main living areas, why wouldn’t they choose them over other kinds of play every single time?

In the same way that we have to help children learn how to play independently* outside when they’re not accustomed to it, we have to help set them up for independent play success inside our homes as well.  We have to keep their desires and thought processes in mind and create an environment that fosters the kind of play we want to see them engaged in. Furthermore, we have to keep in mind that play is like a muscle. If you haven’t used your play muscle in a bit, other than trying to beat your high score on Flap Happy, it will take some work to get it moving again. That’s where we have to step in as parents and provide the little nudge that gets the play muscle moving. How do we facilitate the kind of play we’d like to see?

Life with boys: a sea of Legos. #keepinitreal

We have to be willing to endure messes.

 

Play can be messy. It’s the bin of blocks spread all over the floor to find the perfect one. It’s glitter on the table for the latest masterpiece. It’s all the cushions pulled off the couch for the fort. When the day is over we can work together to clean the mess up, but trying to keep play tidy as it’s happening is a play buzzkill.

 

We need to have toys accessible.

 

The toys need to be where the children enjoy spending time, not necessarily where we think the toys look better (Guilty). Our basement is cold in the winter, and totally cut off from where we are. For Eli, who enjoys having someone nearby, this was a dealbreaker. Find creative storage to house the toys when they’re not being played with, and be aware of ways to incorporate play in the rooms you use the most, like this dollhouse in a kitchen cabinet.

 

But not so many toys that they’re overwhelmed with choices.

 

How many times have your kids whined that they’re bored, as they’re standing in the middle of a room packed with toys? I’ve threatened many a time to pack up the toys and send them to kids who would love the opportunity to play with them. The funny thing is, the less they have to choose from, the better they get at choosing. I store some toys in a closet and rotate through them periodically. It’s like Christmas when the “new” toys come out. And when they don’t get any reaction or play time? I know it’s time to donate those toys to someone else.

Prepared environment for crafting

 

Embrace the prepared environment. 

 

This is a term used in Montessori classrooms, in which the rooms are thoughtfully set up to encourage learning.  In the prepared environment there is order, accessibility, and the freedom to move and choose activities freely. At home, that means we have to plan ahead sometimes and have an activity ready, if only to get them started.  You might set out a selection of crafting supplies, which gets them started creating art. Select a few toys to have out at a time, so they’re not overwhelmed with choices or toy clutter. Leave out some planned discoveries to get their engines running.

 

Embrace your kids passions

Pay attention to their passions.

 

Once you find out what really excites them, look for ways to add playful opportunities to their passion. Pinterest is a great resource for creative and inexpensive ways to boost specific themes of play. Conversely, be willing to let go of toys that don’t speak to their passions. I have a habit of buying toys that I think are cool, but my kids don’t necessarily love. I bought a lovely (and not-so-inexpensive) Quadrilla set a few years ago. I loved the way it looked and imagined hours of endless play. They never loved it. In fact, they’ve never been big into building with wooden blocks of any kind, but that didn’t stop me from buying another kind of wooden marble run, Lincoln logs, and a big set of blocks. I’d get annoyed every time I looked at them collecting dust on the shelf. I finally let them go, freeing up space to spread out all of Eli’s Super Hero toys and accessories – which he loves and plays with frequently.

If no two kids play alike, then no two homes are alike when it comes to set them up for an enriching play experience. But we can use these guidelines to help us answer the questions that perplex us and come up with a solution that works for us. It seems like a lot of effort on the front end. However the extra time we spend thinking about how and where our kids play best will be rewarded with priceless hours of play. Not the mind-numbing, isolating “play” in the glow of a screen, but the kind of play that nurtures our kids and feeds their souls.

Have you ever thought about the way your kids play and how you can help them play better? What are your biggest struggles? How have you helped them engage in screen-free play?

* By independently, I mean free play in which adults are not directly involved, but not necessarily solitary play. Other children may be involved in the play.

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Good Question: What If You and Your Partner Disagree on a Risky Activity?

Good Question is a Risky Kids series where readers submit their burning questions in return for feedback from myself and the Risky Kid community.  If you have any Good Questions, please share them in the comments, on our Facebook page, or email them to Angie at theriskykids at gmail dot com. I’m looking forward to lots of Good Questions and more importantly, all of your Good Answers!

So this is a question that doesn’t come up too often in our household, but it came up the other day. What do you do if you and your partner disagree on whether an activity is okay for your kids?

If the partners are fairly different in their tolerance or comfort level for riskier activities, I can see how this could become a point of contention and cause a lot of stress. If you’re an adventurous parent and your partner is more cautious (or vice versa), how do you handle a situation where you don’t agree on whether an activity is safe or appropriate for the kids?

In our situation, Mike and I are almost always on the same page. But every once in a while we disagree. What’s interesting is that it’s not always the same person who feels uncomfortable with an activity – I guess our risk-meters differ depending on the day and the activity. The other day it just happened to be me. On this particular day, he wanted to pull the kids on the sled in, well, an unconventional way. (I’m not going to go into any more detail than that, because I don’t want this to turn into a debate on whether or not a particular activity is acceptable. I want the discussion to focus on what to do when you’re not on the same page regardless of the activity.)

I didn’t love the idea, and I let him know. He’d already told the kids, so in addition to my trepidation, I had two very excited kids bouncing around in anticipation. He gave me a few reasons as to why he thought the activity would be okay, and while it was still something I would never do, I trusted his judgement. They did their unconventional sledding activity, they all had a blast, and most importantly, they all came home in one piece.

The key for us is to take the time to listen to the why behind your partner’s request to try a certain activity. At the same time, the person who is feeling anxious must be heard as well. Sometimes, as in my case, just being able to voice your anxieties and worst-case scenarios is enough to make a person feel good enough to consent. I know for me, being able to spell out what could happen and get a sense that Mike is aware and properly vigilant, is often enough for me to feel okay with the activity. We also trust each other enough that if one person doesn’t consent, the other will respect that.

How do you handle similar situations when they come up in your home? Is one partner always the gas and the other always the brake, or do you alternate as Mike and I tend to do?

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What If We Did the Opposite? An Alternative to Publicly Shaming Parents

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Warning! Unattended child! Someone call the authorities!

I’ve had this post on the back burner for quite some time. It first came to me after reading this post from Lenore at Free Range Kids.  Take a few minutes and read a mom’s story about leaving her 3 year-old daughter unattended for a few moments in a restaurant while she helped her other child in the bathroom.

This is the kind of thing that both inspires me and terrifies me at the same time. On the one hand, I know that as more of us take those steps to show what common sense and parenting can look like together, more people will get comfortable with the idea that our children aren’t in danger every single second. When another parent sees me telling my son he can use the public restroom by himself, or sees my daughter biking to the pretzel shop with a friend, they can feel better about letting their own children spread their wings. The message is “This is normal behavior. I’m not a freak. We can look out for each other.”

On the other hand, I don’t want to be the parent subjected to that kind of public humiliation, especially in front of my kids. Or even worse, I don’t want to be the parent who has to hire a lawyer because some “well-meaning” yahoo called the police for leaving my 6-year-old in the car while I run in to pick up the pizza. And so I walk the fine line between trying to be an example for common sense, hysteria-free parenting and trying to stay under the radar so as to not draw undue attention to ourselves.

It was this line specifically in Lenore’s post that had me reconsidering what life for parents like myself could be like, if people would just stop and think for a moment:

“Why don’t onlookers realize that they are PART of the safety net that looks after our kids and not the shame brigade?”

What if we did the opposite? What if we took the energy it required for us to shame, condescend, judge, or complain and turned it into some positive action instead? So maybe that women at Taco Bell wouldn’t make the same choice. Maybe her gut, as a parent, tells her that she’d feel better taking both kids to the bathroom. That’s okay! I’m not going to rip you a new one because I think you’re making things unnecessarily hard on yourself. But when I think of the energy it took for her to shame another mother, I get angry. Why not use your energy to help?

Offer to keep an eye on a toddler so a mother can take an older child to the restroom. If you see unattended kids in a car near a place of business, hang out for a minute and asses the situation. If the parent comes back out in a few minutes and the kids are oblivious, smile and get on with your business. You feel better in that you’ve made sure no harm is coming towards the kids, the parent doesn’t get shamed for doing something our parents did day in and day out when we were kids. If you see kids playing outside without adult supervision, observe for a few minutes. Are they having fun? Playing appropriately? Good! You are an extra set of eyes looking out for the next generation, as other adults did for generations before this one.

Shaming wastes energy and helps no one. It wastes public resources when CPS is called to handle cases of no consequence while actual abuse is happening to children elsewhere. It pulls police officers away from real crimes. It turns good parents into fearful ones, who in turn pass the fear onto their children. Then, in a few years, these same “helpers” will bemoan the fact that we have raised a generation of kids who can’t function as responsible adults. They will blame technology, the government, the parents, the school system, but they will never think for one moment of the part their judgement played on how children are raised today.

Have you ever been shamed publicly like this mother? Or have you ever felt the need to call someone out on their parenting in public? How can we handle situations like these in the best interest of the kids involved?

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The Idle Parent Manifesto: There Are Many Paths

This is the last part in a series of discussions regarding The Idle Parent Manifesto, which can be found in Tom Hodgkinson’s book The Idle Parent: Why Laid-Back Parents Raise Happier and Healthier Kids. Need to get caught up? You can do so here.

There Are Many Paths

It’s hard to believe that 1) I’ve been doing this Idle Parent series since I started The Risky Kids nearly 2 years ago (!) and 2) that it’s actually over.  Don’t say I never finish what I start!  Of all the many posts Lisa and I have written regarding the Idle Parent Manifesto, of all the many ways we’ve asked you to rethink the way you parent, this final idea within the manifesto is my very favorite.  If you never read another post within the series, if you only choose to take away one idea, let it be this one:

There are many paths.

 

We all know it in our hearts: there isn’t one right way to parent.  Wherever you are on the scale of risky to cautious, you try to parent the best way you know how, in the way you feel is the right fit for your family.  We start with these itty bitty babies and no clue what to do with them, and we set our sights on the far away day when they will leave us for their own grand lives.  We hope to see them walk out our doors with a good head on their shoulders, their feet firmly planted on the ground, and their eyes to the skies of possibility.  In between, we travel all kinds of convoluted ways to get them there.

If you figured out a straight line to get them from Point A to Point B?  Good for you.  You win the Perfect Parent Prize and you can write a book for the rest of us.  But I bet you haven’t amassed any where near the volumes of stories we could write about our funniest, favorite, and yes, most shameful moments our own windy paths have taken us on.

I wouldn’t hold your breath for those parents or that book, though, since the Perfect Parent is a myth.  They’re a community myth, one that we all have a hand in creating and perpetuating.  The Perfect Parent has it all under control.  The Perfect Parent sleep trains (or doesn’t).  The Perfect Parent works outside the home (or doesn’t).  The Perfect Parent enrolls their children in all the best activities (or doesn’t).  The Perfect Parent lets their child walk to school alone (or doesn’t).  The Perfect Parent only feeds their children organic, whole-grain, sugar-free food (or doesn’t).   Don’t you see?  The Perfect Parent with the One Path to Perfect Children is the story we tell ourselves.  Only instead of lulling us to sleep with dreams of all the ways we’ve done well by our children, this story keeps us awake with tales of failures and shortcomings.

At the end of the book, the author encourages the reader to stop making every aspect of childhood a parenting priority.  His thoughts are that if you relinquish some of that control, your kids will be happier and you’ll feel less overworked as a parent.  He asks the reader to “Give childhood back to the children.  Resist the American way.  Keep rebelling!  Make family life into a revolutionary act.”

I like that.  If you only take one thing away from this series, or frankly, from this blog, let it be this:  make your own story and forge your own path.  Please look to us and the other trusted voices around you for inspiration, but don’t let anybody else write your family’s story for you.

My goal and passion is to give you elements to make your story more playful.  No matter where you fall on the Risky Scale, all I hope is that you’ll look for ways to add just a little bit of risk to your lives.  Try something that scares you just a bit.  Do something as a family you never thought you could do.  Do you like it?  Then try a little more.  Do you hate it?  Then try something different.  Whatever you do, don’t submit to the myth of the Perfect Parent and the One Path.  Start your own revolution against the stories that aren’t your own, and enjoy the twisty path.

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Good Question: Should Chores Be Tied To Allowance?

Good Question is a Risky Kids series where readers submit their burning questions in return for feedback from myself and the Risky Kid community.  If you have any Good Questions, please share them in the comments, on our Facebook page, or email them to Angie at theriskykids at gmail dot com. I’m looking forward to lots of Good Questions and more importantly, all of your Good Answers!

Should Chores Be Tied To Allowance?

This month’s Good Question comes from none other than me! We’re knee deep in trying to figure out a good, long-term system for our kids’ allowances and chore requirements. It’s been an ongoing struggle around here, as we do our best to raise responsible kids. For too long Mike and I have been doing things that our kids are perfectly capable of doing (laundry, dishes, sweeping, etc.) simply because it’s faster and easier. And for too long we’ve been inconsistent in giving our kids an allowance and giving them opportunities to learn fiscal responsibility.

So as we hone our own family’s system, one of the issues that comes up is whether or not chores and allowance should be linked. We’ve tried it both ways (though not consistently), and are leaning towards making their allowance a separate entity from required chores, but I’d love to hear your thoughts.

How do you handle chores and allowance in your home? As your kids get older, what kinds of things do you require them to pay for on their own? Do you have a method that works well for your family? Please share!

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Every Step You Take: The Unintentional (and Dangerous) Consequences of Using Tracking Technology on Kids

Kids & Tracking Technology via The Risky Kids

Tracking devices: don’t let your pets or kids leave home without one.

 

It was only a matter of time. That’s what I thought as I read this article in the New York Times, which discusses ways in which GPS, Wi-Fi, and other tracking technologies are now being applied to parenting.

Specifically, the article mentions the Filip and the Trax. The Filip is worn like a watch, but acts as a tracking device. Beyond being able to map a child’s location, a parent can make voice calls to the device. And just in case things get real dicey, the watch comes equipped with a panic button that the child can push, which then activates the system to call parents or other authorized caregivers.

The Trax looks like a mini pager and clips onto the child’s clothing. Parents pair it with an app, which allows them to monitor exactly where the child is at all times. Parents have the ability to draw boundaries in which their children are free to roam. Wander outside the invisible fence and parents will be notified.  It’s not quite the same as micro-chipping our children shortly after they’re born, but I wouldn’t put it beyond anyone to try and sell us that “benefit” either.

As a parent who has experienced that sick, panicked feeling of not knowing where her child is, I can see the appeal of these technologies. And in certain situations, I can understand how devices such as these could be really helpful – the ability to rent one for a day while visiting an amusement park, for instance. But peer just below the surface and think about the ramifications of making tracking technologies a part of daily life. It’s murky, and the unintended consequences of tracking our kids’ every movement are swimming all around us.

Once such consequence is the undertone of anxiety it places on daily life. Sending a child into the world with a technology for “just in case” situations teaches them that the world is a dangerous place. We don’t have to say a word. By slapping on a watch or any other device, we’re implying that the possibility of something really bad happening is very real. When the CEO of Filip Technologies was asked about this very issue, he agreed that his product might increase a child’s anxiety, but said “… I would question whether that’s a bad thing.”  Kids need a lot of things these days – more free time, opportunities for open-ended play, unconditional love, good schools, safe and loving homes. They do not need anxiety added to that list.

Then there is the issue of trust. These devices imply to our kids that not only are we wary of the world around them, it sends a message that we don’t trust them.  In her independent endeavors, Elena has done a few things that haven’t been the best choices. She’s disappointed us, and yes, she’s broken our trust. But it is a far more memorable thing for a child to have experienced what it feels like to lose a privilege as a consequence of broken trust than to hear the implied message these Big Brother-type devices send to them: We never trusted you in the first place. Critics will ask if I’m okay with the possibility that these poor choices my child makes might result in injury or a dangerous situation. And my reply is always the same. Far better that she experience the negative consequence of a poor choice when the stakes are relatively small, and learn from it, than to wait for her to grow up and think she will magically know how to conduct herself as an adult when the stakes are high.

This kind of technology creates a false sense of security, and I’m afraid dependence on them will replace one of our most valuable and trusted human characteristics – our gut instinct. It’s that feeling in the pit of your stomach that something just isn’t right … whether it comes from you or your child, that so often saves us from doing something potentially dangerous. When we let a device decide for us, what happens to that instinct? I fear that it’s like a muscle. When we don’t use it, when we fail to listen to it, it loses its strength.

If any of the above reasons weren’t enough to convince a parent that maybe, just maybe, this isn’t the best idea we’ve come up with, let me point out that the makers of the Trax tout the dual benefit of the device … it can also be used to keep tabs on the family pet. Yes, son, we think you are about as responsible and capable of good judgement as Fido here. Don’t you just feel so empowered to make good decisions now?

Parents, when it comes to tracking devices for kids, save your money. Instead, choose to invest your time, effort and patience into showing your kids how to be independent and responsible … without someone or something watching over them every step of the way.

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Good Question: How old should my kid be to use public restrooms alone?

Good Question is a Risky Kids series where readers submit their burning questions in return for feedback from myself and the Risky Kid community.  If you have any Good Questions, please share them in the comments, on our Facebook page, or email them to Angie at theriskykids at gmail dot com. I’m looking forward to lots of Good Questions and more importantly, all of your Good Answers!

I get asked this question (or some variant of “How old were your kids when you let them do ________ by themselves?”) a lot. In regards to public restrooms, we’re talking about two scenarios. One, you are out with your child of the opposite sex. They need to use the restroom and have expressed dismay at having to use the restroom that is clearly not for them. In the other scenario, your child of the same sex expresses the same dismay at having you follow them around in the bathroom when they feel quite capable of handling it themselves. I’ll give you the short answer and the long answer.

The short answer is five. That’s the age when I start letting my kids go into a public restroom without me. Does that freak you out? Probably. And so let me go into my long answer …

In any of these types of “How old should my kid be” scenarios, I have to stress that there is no magic age or right answer. There is always an age range. I like to think of it as a scale. On one end you have absolutely not ready, which fades into possibly ready, followed by go for it, with let go, already on the other end of the scale. Many factors need to be taken into consideration, including your comfort level, the surrounding situation, your child’s maturity level, your child’s desire, and age. It’s only after looking at all the factors that you can accurately determine if your child is ready for a situation.

I’ll use Eli, who is 6, and the public restroom issue as an example. Six is an acceptable age (in our family) for using a public restroom alone. As early as five, his desire to do this task on his own was there. He is a rule-follower, and it deeply pained him to use a girls’ restroom when, clearly, he was not a girl! He was also capable of completing the task on his own (shutting and locking the door, dealing with zippers and buttons, flushing, washing and drying his hands). I saw him on the go for it section of the scale.

At this younger age, as each individual restroom situation arises, I check myself against the other factors to see what we need to do. What’s my comfort level? Are we at the Target we shop at all the time, where I can sit and wait on the bench for him just outside the door? Or is it an unfamiliar, and maybe somewhat shady, restroom situation? What’s the surrounding situation? Is it a single person restroom? Is there a family restroom available? Can I see who is entering and leaving the restroom easily? I look at these factors in combination with his age, desire, and maturity level and then decide if he goes alone or if he goes with me.

At this age, it’s a toss-up whether he actually goes alone or not. Some places are ok, others he needs to stick with me. In a year or two, he’ll always go by himself, as his big sister does.

How did you decide it was time for your kids to use the public restroom by themselves? Has anyone ever give you grief for letting your kids go by themselves? Or has anyone ever raised a stink (pun totally intended) about having your child of the opposite sex in the restroom with you?

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Baby Steps to Risky Play For Parents and Caregivers

Baby Steps to Risky Play from The Risky Kids

A while back I wrote about encouraging cautious children to try risky play.  But what about the opposite problem?  What if you have kids who are more than willing to take risks but you’re the cautious one?

First things first: you’re not alone.  Many parents and caregivers are understandably nervous about letting their kids engage in risky play.  And while we’re all familiar with the helicopter parent, what about those parents who find themselves in between hovering and free-range? The ones who would like to loosen up a bit, but aren’t sure where to start? That’s why I’m here – to encourage you by giving you some baby steps to risky play.

Here’s the thing – kids are going to engage in risky play (often behind your back) if you ban it in your presence.  By allowing them to dabble in risky play under controlled circumstances, you’re providing them with the valuable play experiences they need while minimizing the chance of injury.  In turn, starting out small builds your confidence as a parent as well, empowering you to trust yourself and your kids to slowly try new experiences and ways to play. Risky play is developmentally appropriate, and when it is allowed in an environment that allows for controlled risk, you’re helping kids to grow and develop important life skills.  That’s the key here – aiming for controlled risk.  It’s the sweet spot in between no risk and an unchecked free-for-all.

When talking about risky play, there are six main types of play that children naturally want to experience. By finding an activity that fits your comfort level, you allow your child to experience the risky play they crave without sacrificing your sanity or their safety.  Here are the 6 main types of risky play paired with suggestions for introductory activities that will satisfy kids’ natural desire for risk.

Great Heights 

Junior Monkey Bars

  

This includes climbing, jumping, balancing and hanging.  Some kids can’t get enough, others need encouraging, but I’ve yet to meet a parent (myself included) that doesn’t cringe when their kids want to climb up and jump off something.  Encourage kids to start small.  For a toddler, this means giving him the chance to jump from the small ledge of a curb or step without telling him to “Be careful!”  Small rocks are great to explore, climb and jump from.  Try to find a playground with monkey bars (this is getting harder and harder to do).  If the weather is bad or you’re having a hard time finding these elements in your local playspaces, try signing up for some climb time at an indoor climbing facility.

High Speed

 

Kids crave speed

My mind initially goes to race car speeds, but this isn’t the case at all!  It just means kids crave the wind in their hair and the element of feeling slightly out of control.  Encourage running, and find wide open spaces to run.  Have different types of ride-on toys available, such as bikes, scooters, and plasma cars.  Let them swing as high as they can.  Go sledding or ice skating in the winter.

Dangerous Tools

 

Kids Driving nails

No need to break out the chain saw!  Start small.  Hammering nails is the perfect introductory activity that can be tailored to fit any age.  From simple toddler-approved tool sets up to real hammers and nails paired with scrap lumber for preschoolers and up, every kid enjoys the thrill of working with tools.  Fall is a great time to practice hammering on pumpkins if you don’t have scrap wood available.

Dangerous Elements

 

Kids Using Fire

 

This includes elevation changes, water, and fire.  We’re headed into winter and this is the perfect time to introduce fire, as well as fire safety.  We often have candles going in the house during these cool months.  Let your older child learn how to strike a match and light a candle.  Let the younger children blow the candle out.  Let them observe and help as you light a fire in the fireplace or start a bonfire outdoors.  It’s also a natural time to discuss fire safety, and to remind them to never start a fire without the presence of an adult or to put anything into a fire without adult supervision.

 

Mock-Aggression

 

Boys wrestling

Parents of boys know this one all too well.  They seem to come hardwired ready to play rough.  Don’t squash it, just encourage it within certain parameters.  Let them roughhouse and wrestle on the floor with you.  Encourage superhero play with costumes.  Play fighting is a great way to work out real-life feelings.  Avoid injuries by providing kids with pool noodles,foam swords or Nerf guns.  I tell them where they can play (outside or in the basement) and they know the rules: no hitting faces or private parts.

 

Disappearing/Exploring

Kids playing with cardboard boxes

After fire, this is probably the one that incites the most anxiety.  Keep in mind that for kids, disappearing is mostly an illusion.  They don’t want to go far away, they just crave pockets of time away from your direct vision.  Keep a tent sent up in a distant corner of the house or the playroom.  Provide materials and supplies for indoor fort-building.  Outdoors consider building a playhouse.  My kids love to visit a local wooden playground because it has all kinds of spots for hiding.  If you’re feeling especially brave, allow your child to play outside by themselves in the front or back yard.  Start small – even 5 or 10 minutes can make a child feel very big and responsible!

The key to feeling more comfortable in any of these circumstances is to start small.  Try something that is just a teeny bit outside your comfort zone and see how it goes.  In time, you’ll make great strides in both your confidence and your child’s, and you can feel good knowing you’re providing experiences that will build wonderful lifelong skills, as well as happy childhood memories.

If you have suggestions of further activities families can do to start out small in any of these play categories, please share! And if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask. We’re all here to learn and encourage each other in play!

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