One Saturday this summer I stood in a field and held my breath as I waited for my nine-year-old daughter Sofya to jump through a ring of fire. Despite her enthusiasm, the hours of practice she’d had with expert adults and the many fire marshals on duty, I could see she was in conflict: afraid of the flames and equally scared of not pushing herself through that fear into the unknown.
As she watched her friends take their turns – tensing her body as they ran; wincing as they jumped; grinning and clapping when they were safely on the other side – I faced my own internal struggle. I was torn between scooping her up to a safe place away from all this heat and pressure, and standing back, trusting her and letting her take the risk. It felt like a rite of passage for us both.
This mother/daughter moment of truth came as part of an annual family festival, Starry Skies, whose mission is to let the kids “roam free”. Little ones, like our five-year-old son, join the Woodland Tribe, using hammers and nails to build their own adventure playgrounds or slide down zip wires, and toast bread over a fire. Meanwhile kids my daughter’s age join the Burrow, a twice-daily gathering in a shady forest that culminates in a courageous performance in front of parents. These sessions aim to create a sense of community for children in a place they feel they can belong. It’s designed to build self-confidence by cultivating resilience and a belief that we can all be the change we want to see in the world. For Sofya it was simply her very own, secret, grown-up club where she felt instantly at home.
Our family’s experiences at the festival over the past three years sit alongside our move to a more self-sufficient way of living on a smallholding. Both have played an important role in convincing me that having the opportunity to manage your own risk and test your boundaries (without parents breathing down your neck) is a vital part of childhood. But as someone whose natural tendency is to worry and helicopter-parent, knowing is one thing and following through another.
I remember the first walk my husband and I took with our 10-day-old daughter, limping slowly along the canal with a third-hand buggy that seemed too big for the towpath. The world had morphed into a series of threats – walkers, cyclists, smokers, nettles. Even the birds looked menacing, with their sharp beaks and presumed interest in the baby’s shiny eyes. I wanted to turn back to the milky safety of the living room but, subconsciously recognising another threat looming, I didn’t. That threat was me and the decision I knew I could easily make to smother her freedom and growth and give in to this seductive desire to protect her completely.
Clinical psychologist Rosanna Gilderthorp explains that the urge to helicopter over our children beyond babyhood is deeply understandable. “Our brains obligingly help us protect our tiny, vulnerable babies until they can spot potential threats before they happen.” However, because the threats of modern living are quite different to the ones our brains were built for (there aren’t many wild bears in a child’s nursery), it is often difficult for us to switch off our threat-spotting and let our kids play and explore the world.
The negative impact of this, combined with other aspects of contemporary existence, is being felt by our kids. A study commissioned by the National Trust found that children today spend half as much time playing outside as their parents did. Research by the National Children’s Bureau revealed nearly 50% of parents let fear of strangers stop them allowing their children to play outside, despite the range of developmental and mental health benefits that outdoor-play brings. Perceptions of the dangers our children face are not borne out by the reality and studies indicate that helicopter parenting itself can trigger anxiety in some children. The restrictive, over-managed nature of children’s play facilities has even encouraged the Health and Safety Executive to remind us that the goal of play is to manage not eliminate risk.
Finding the ever-shifting point that keeps children away from harm while offering them opportunities to be useful, prove themselves and reap the rewards of being bold and brave is, for me, the goal and struggle of parenting. I want them to feel capable and confident enough to seize the day without worrying about my feelings, and yet I still hover under the monkey bars, shout “Careful!” more times than I care to count and instinctively try to shield them from emotional pain rather than helping them through it. My daughter tells me she doesn’t like this side of my parenting. “It makes me too worried to do things,” she explains. Contrasting this with the Burrow – where the adults are literally encouraging the children to safely play with fire – she prefers the latter. “It made me braver and proud of myself,” she said.
Hoping he will help me finally break my helicopter habits, I speak to Jo Clark, an experiential learning facilitator who has spent his working life guiding young people from a wide range of backgrounds – most recently through the year-round programme of residential activities for schools he runs at On the Hill Camp. Clark designs and leads the Burrow and is a firm believer in dialling down on the restriction of kids’ freedoms. “Children can’t learn about the world, or their place in it, if they are not encouraged to step out of their comfort zone and to take risks safely,” he asserts.
He is critical of the narrow focus of our education system, saying much of it is irrelevant to the lives many children will go on to lead. He is conscious that a lot of young people walk away from their schooling without any feeling of success nor the chance to show they can make a valuable contribution to society. At the festival he notices how much kids want to show the adults with them that they are willing to take risks and to prove that they can do it safely. “The message the children are offering the adults is, ‘Look you can trust me, I can make an informed judgment for myself.’”
Though I struggle to embrace this style of parenting fully, seeing my children proving themselves in this way helps. And as I stand watching my daughter battle with her competing fears to decide whether to jump through the fire or to stand back, I realise two things. I know without a doubt that she can do it and that at least part of my desire to hold her back is to protect myself.
My children’s pain sits heavily on me – much heavier than my own. Whether it is physical or emotional distress, our role as parents becomes sharply exposed when our children are hurting. We can hold them and whisper words of love, but ultimately we cannot make pain stop – and I have tried. Two years ago, watching my daughter writhing in agony as she waited for medics to arrive to attend to her badly broken arm, I begged for all the drugs they had until they had run out. I was asking for ketamine and would have done almost anything to dampen her pain – or, better still, to rewind time and avoid the accident altogether – in part because I simply could not bear how much she was hurting. But she could and did bear it bravely. She learned she could cope with the pain and the limitation the injury caused her for a good while after. She learned to overcome her fears and get back to the sport that took her to hospital in the first place. Like so many of us, my daughter got something out of adversity – something she gets to keep for the rest of her life and call on in moments of doubt.
This is the key to curbing my over-protective tendencies. Knowing I cannot protect my children from the pain that’s in store for them in the adult world makes me want to cultivate their resilience now. I need them to be able to keep themselves safe because I cannot hope to do it for them. I don’t want them to lead an anxious and fearful life, but one full of opportunity to turn risk into joy and excitement.
So on that Saturday at Starry Skies I choke back a shout of “Careful!” I whoop and clap as Sofya steels herself to jump. She shouts, “I have the courage,” sets her face determinedly and makes the run, sailing through the fire into the cool air, full of possibility, on the other side. She still looks to me first for approval and I do a mad thumbs-up dance and her face cracks into a grin. And then she runs off to toast marshmallows with her new friends without a backward glance.