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Your small child is trying to make a block stack and the blocks keep falling down. What are you likely to do?

  1. Help her align the blocks so they balance better
  2. Build the block stack for her
  3. Do nothing.

Does it surprise you to know that “do nothing” is the choice that contributes most to your child’s development? It is. Letting children work out their own problems and stretch their abilities is the key to learning new things and to feeling a sense of accomplishment and pride. Quite often, “do nothing” is the very best action a parent can take.

Just standing by, letting a child figure something out, seems counter to “good parenting.” But, in fact, letting a child learn by doing is important. Yes, of course, building a block tower is something you could do easily. If the objective is to have a tall tower, then helping your child make the tallest tower possible might make sense. But that’s usually not the objective. In just about anything a child does, it’s the doing that is important, not the actual outcome. And the only way to learn how to do something is to try.

We parents do tend to change the agenda. We see the outcome, not the process. So when a small child is trying to climb the steps to the top of a playground slide, we believe that getting up to where the child can slide down is the point. But actually negotiating the steps themselves is satisfying. Do you doubt me? Remember when your child was learning to go up and down the stairs in your home? Getting to the bedrooms wasn’t the point. Just figuring out how to go up and down was.

The only time it’s sensible to help out is when the child is obviously frustrated and mentally stuck. At that time, it’s helpful to point out that the blocks will stack higher when the child starts out on a smooth surface instead of on the carpet. It’s also sensible to help a child frame the problem. The child who can get two blocks to stack can see if he can stack three. Three stacked? See if he can stack four… It’s not height that matters but achieving a bit more than before.

Standing by, “neglecting” to help, can get you criticized by other parents at the playground. They may think you’re not involved and then they might step in to provide the assistance you were being careful to avoid providing. A quiet word with such parents – “please let him figure it out… don’t worry, I’m watching him” – is called for in such a situation.

Some parents hover to the point of interference. They are actually limiting their children’s growth. In addition, they are teaching their children to give up early and lean on somebody else. You won’t do that.

You want kids who are persistent and resilient. You know that to develop your children’s confidence you must let them figure things out.

© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.

It’s every parent’s nightmare: your child isn’t where you thought she was. In fact, she’s nowhere to be seen.  Even if being lost lasts for only a minute or two, you want to save yourself the anxiety and protect your child from what could happen when she’s lost.

From the moment a child is able to walk, he has places to go, things to see. His ability to keep track of where he is and how far he’s wandered doesn’t develop until much, much later. His ability to retrace his steps to get back to safety is even slower to develop – it’s something even we adults struggle with sometimes. Children often don’t even realize they’re lost. Many times, they’re just moving ahead, absorbed in whatever they’re doing.

Keeping toddlers under your eye is important. Use the seatbelt to keep your little one securely in place in a shopping cart. Hold hands or pick her up when you walk through a crowd. At the playground or children’s museum, keep your phone in your pocket so you’re not distracted. Many a parent has looked up from a phone after “just a few seconds” reviewing updates to discover the child has disappeared. It’s amazing how far away children can get when you’re not looking.

Preschoolers and older children are a bit more of a challenge. They are more independent of adult oversight as they play with each other at the park or walk along with the family on an outing. With picnics, street fairs, and water park visits coming up this summer, what can you do? You may not always keep them from getting lost but you can make it more certain they’ll be quickly found.

Here are some strategies to keep you and your kids safe.

  1. A child who realizes she’s lost should stay put and yell. Once a child realizes she’s become separated from her parents, she should stop moving and make a lot of noise. Running to find you or even just continuing to walk around hunting for you is more likely to lead her further and further away. Teach her to call loudly, “MOM!”  Most of all, children should know to not go to the parking lot to find you. Your child must know you would never leave without her.
  2. The lost child should enlist the help of a woman who has children with her. A mother is likely to be helpful and sympathetic… and safe. A store clerk or other employee can help, too, but the child should stay close to where they first realized they were lost. Teach your child how to speak up clearly, saying “I’ve lost my parents. Can you help me?”
  3. A child should never be more than a few steps away from you. Make it clear that your child should always keep you in sight. Make certain your children know they must tell you when they want to stop to look at something.
  4. Forbid playing hiding games in unfamiliar locations and unbounded spaces. Hide and seek is a great game, but what are the boundaries if you’re playing at the park? How far can a child go? How will you recover a child who hides so well that you can’t find her? At the very least, assign yourself thejob of “watcher” whose job is to know where every child is hidden.
  5. Know where you’ll meet and when. If you’re at an event with older elementary children and you want to let the kids go on their own, set a time and place to reunite. The place should be something very obvious – something tall that can be seen from a distance is a good location. If your child has a cell phone, then insist he answer your texts and calls. Make sure the notification volume is loud enough to be heard in a noisy situation.
  6. Make your child easily identifiable. To people not their parents, all children look alike. Before going out with your children, notice what they’re wearing today. Take a group photo before setting out at the fair.

Think ahead, you and your kids together, and have a lovely time!


© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Join Dr. Anderson in an online conference for teachers and parents. Find out more at Quality Conference for Early Childhood Leaders.

A preschool teacher in New Zealand asks a question that’s worth stopping to think about. Can your child do the sorts of things you could do when you were her age? He thinks the answer is “no.” He’s noticed that children these days are able to do less.

So think back to your own childhood. When you were six or seven, what did you like to do? Did you

Now answer this: how many of these activities do your children do easily and often? As easily and often as you did at their age?

Kids these days don’t have as much outdoor time that’s unscheduled. They spend less time just playing with other children, and spend more time in organized sports or in settings carefully supervised by adults. Because children’s playtime these days involves grownups, it happens on grownups’ timetables. It’s limited. It’s scheduled. It’s not planned by the children themselves.

This means that children’s play is less casual. Nothing is “pick-up” anymore. The rules are not negotiated anymore but are refereed by adults. Things seem more competitive. Even the places where play happens is less natural and more “civilized.”

If children seem less interested in outdoor play this could be the reason why.  And if children seem less physically fit, softer, and chubbier than they used to be, these could be contributing factors.

So, what can you do?

  1. Stock play equipment kids can use. Lots of equipment like scooters and bikes can be got second hand or shared with nearby families. Certainly balls of several sizes and Frisbees should be part of every family’s front closet.
  2. Let kids play. Don’t worry about the rules or technique. This is about having fun and being active, not making the team. If you like and are invited, do join in with the play, but play along; don’t make everyone do as you say.
  3. Keep out. Try not to hover or supervise compulsively. Certainly keep an eye out and be ready to redirect kids if things seem headed for danger. But children will find their own level of challenge if you let them. Try to let them.
  4. Be sensible. At the same time that you’re keeping out, don’t allow ropes on trees or climbing structures, bicycles on busy streets, and so on. Teach safety and remember that kids – especially children without a lot of experience with outdoor play – can’t see the dangers you can. Don’t hover but do guide.

You might find your kids don’t even know how to have fun outdoors anymore. You might have to show them. But if the fun has gone out of childhood in your neighborhood, now is the time to put it back.

Let your children have as much fun, be just as active, and be as agile now as you were back then.


© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.

Where are you when your child is on the monkey bars?

  1. Rushing to get her down as fast as possible.
  2. Warning her from the sidelines to be careful.
  3. Watching without comment, ready to help if she gets into trouble.
  4. Reading, checking your email, talking to friends.

Of course, every child is different and it makes a difference if the monkey-bar child is 18 months old or four. But the truth of the matter is this: children need challenges. A too-safe world keeps them small. In order to learn the limits of their abilities and to expand those abilities, kids have to push the edges of their known worlds into new worlds of mastery.

Playgrounds, in particular, can be too safe, not so much because they present no challenge but because parents don’t permit children to go into danger. I’m a fan of that rubber mulch that lets a child bounce a bit when he falls. But that mulch is there because falls are expected. Removing all chance of falling by insisting a child say close to the ground or by insisting he hold your hand doesn’t keep a child safe as much as it limits his development.

Former New York City parks commissioner Henry Stern puts it this way: “I grew up on the monkey bars in Fort Tryon Park, and I never forgot how good it felt to get to the top of them. I didn’t want to see that playground bowdlerized. I said that as long as I was parks commissioner, those monkey bars were going to stay.”

A study of children’s risky play found that risk tends to come in six varieties: climbing high, going fast, handling dangerous objects, being near dangerous phenomena (like fire or water), wrestling and other combat, and being away from adults. Researchers found that children manage their own level of challenge with these risks, going a bit further with risk each time, but regulating the danger themselves. Lead author of the study, Ellen Sandseter, says, “The best thing is to let children encounter these challenges from an early age, and they will then progressively learn to master them through their play over the years.”

In addition, there is no evidence that “safer” playgrounds, with lower structures and softer surfaces, have reduced injuries. Risk management professor David Ball reports that some injuries, including arm fractures, actually increased when softer surfaces were introduced. He explains this by saying that “safe” playgrounds actually disguise risks so that children are less able to regulate the level of challenge and get into trouble.

As every parent knows, a trip to the playground is no fun if there’s no challenge. The experience quickly becomes boring. So what can you do?

We all know how important it is that children be active and play outside. Make certain that your children’s outdoor play stimulates not only their muscles but also their brains. Let them stretch their abilities by making certain not everything is always safe.

© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Developmentally Appropriate Parenting, at your favorite bookstore.

The only way children can increase their skills is through performing at the edge of their abilities. There’s not much risk of bodily harm in reading or playing video games at a level of personal challenge. But pushing strength and coordination to their limits can have dangerous effects. How can you keep your kids safe when they dare to test the boundaries of their physical skills?

Dare Devils come in two varieties, it seems: the Over-Unders and the Totally Clueless. Each requires different guidance from mom and dad.

Dare Devil kids who are Totally Clueless just don’t see any cause for worry. They are like toddlers who climb onto window ledges. Climbing is just what they do and they have no notion of heights, gravity, or how to maintain balance. We understand this in toddlers and preschoolers but some children remain Totally Clueless long after one might think they’d become more aware. These kids might have attention difficulties in other areas or they just might not have had much relevant experience. The city kid and the child with ADHD who both wander close behind a horse are equally clueless about the dangers of being stepped on or kicked.

The parent of a Totally Clueless child – whether this is due to age, attention issues, or lack of experience – has a responsibility to be proactive in keeping the child safe. This means, of course, that we have to be aware of the dangers ourselves. We have to be willing to learn from more experienced people ourselves, instead of just blundering forward without a clue. The city parent who takes the family on a visit to the farm but doesn’t pay attention to a child’s proximity to large animals is complicit in any injuries the child sustains when she discovers that cows can bite. We have to stay alert when our children enter into new territory because even clever kids may be Totally Clueless in unfamiliar fields.

Dare Devil kids who over-estimate their own abilities or under-estimate the dangers of a situation (or both!) require more targeted thinking. These Over-Unders are wonderfully confident  and many of them don’t take kindly to being told to downsize their assessment of a situation. These are the children who jump off cliffs into lakes, imagining that no rocks lie under the water in the places they imagine they will land. Their great imaginations show only positives. It’s our sad duty as parents to imagine the negatives for them.

Much of this we do by modeling prudence while our kids are still young. You hang around under the monkey bars, ready to “spot” your child when he slips. You check the water for rocks. You let your child know what you’re doing, because that reinforces both the danger and the necessary care.

Then, as your child gets older and as specific situations come up, you point out the possible risks and help to find ways to minimize those dangers. The child who is inspired by Olympic coverage to try gymnastics in the back yard sees only the fun of flying around and not the training, the preparation, or the safety equipment. Your teen who’s planning a back country camping trip with her friends imagines only the cozy camp fire, not the snakes or the lightning storms. You’ve got to find ways to preserve the fun while ensuring your child doesn’t land in the ER. The best way to do this, often, is to link your kid up to a class in whatever area he is overconfident of his abilities and under aware of the dangers. A day’s class in gymnastics or white water rafting will impress upon your child the need for care and preparation better than you can do. Or put into her hands a how-to book or link her up with an expert.

One of the burdens of parenting is being able to imagine danger around every corner. It’s important that we keep our own risk-assessment reasonable and not limit our children’s experiences to only what is safe. Doing that limits our children’s abilities. As we’ve seen, being Totally Clueless is no help.

But at the same time we have to remember that children don’t know what they haven’t tried. When they do try, we’ve got to keep their eyes open. We want them to survive the experience.

All kids should be dare devils, trying new things. We’ve got to keep our Dare Devils safe.


© 2012, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.