Growing up, neither my wife’s family nor mine were skiers, so we didn’t go skiing. Spending much of my childhood in Indiana, where I jokingly report the highest elevation to be a speedbump, we didn’t have many ski options anyway. Further, few people wanted to find more snow; they had enough of the cold, snowy and soggy weather.
As an adult, I relocated to the Bay Area and began raising a family. Bay Area transplants quickly realize that learning to ski for many Bay Area children is as normal and expected as learning to ride a bike, even for families that aren’t considered “wealthy.” Not ones to deprive our children of an important skill or opportunity, my wife and I decided we would learn how to ski along with our kids. So on a recent vacation, we purchased some tire chains, rented equipment (now that was an experience, but we’ll save that for a different blog), packed up the car, and headed to the mountains near Yosemite.
As adult learners, my wife and I were very cautious. Always worried we were going to lose control and crash, at the first sign of acceleration or obstacle we would fall on our butts and like a newborn horse immediately trying to walk, spend 10 minutes trying to return to our feet while maintaining the slightest amount of grace.
Our boys on the other hand took to the slopes like fish to water. After the necessary morning to get accustomed to the surroundings and become familiar with the muscles necessary for the task, my five-year old was barreling down the mountain. I watched in awe as he bent his knees, bowed his arms out, and took the mountain by storm. Sure he crashed the first few times, but it didn’t phase him one bit. He got right back up on his skis and headed down the mountain without missing a beat. After several successful runs with one of the many older kids or adults in our group, he quickly felt comfortable jumping on the ski lift by himself and repeatedly heading down the mountain full-steam ahead, no matter that he never learned to turn; turning only slowed him down. The faster the better.
I marvelled at the fearlessness of my boys. As the lift slowly drew me closer to the top of the mountain, I looked down at their courage on the slopes and was reminded of the powerful force fear can be in parenting. If left to my own devices and instincts, I might have protected my kids from every possible risk that skiing presents to such a degree that they would never have really learned how, and further, I would have succeeded in making them fearful of taking a chance because of all of the “possible” yet highly unlikely things that could go wrong.
The underdeveloped brains of children and teens and their relative lack of life experience actually have a lot of value. They are less likely to be “tainted” by all the possible things that could go wrong, thus they are more willing to leave their comfort zones and experience something new. Fortunately, evolution and instinct require that parents play an integral role in ensuring that risk is age-appropropriate, measured, and within a zone of relative reasonableness. But have our modern parenting instincts gone too far? Are we so afraid of what could happen and so convinced of our ability to protect our children and the benefits of doing so that we have taken our parental responsibilities too far?
In her best-selling book, Free Range Kids, Lenore Skenazy laments America’s parenting evolution that attempts to prevent every possible danger and difficulty from impacting our children’s lives. She, as well as many others, advocates for the necessity of age-appropriate risk as an essential means of teaching our children good decision making, responsibility, and independence.
Journalists, sociologists, and bloggers love to label the parenting overreach de jour. For many years, critics complained of helicopter parenting, where parents pay too close attention to every detail of their child’s life; or tiger parenting, which includes high pressure tactics to ensure a child’s academic success. Today, critics warn of snowplow parenting where parents remove every possible obstacle from the path of their child’s experience. At base, the motivating emotion involved in all of these tendencies is FEAR--a fear that the parents’ expectations will not be met or some harm (be it physical, emotional, psychological, or economic) will befall the child.
For those who think their parental fear is a good thing for children, consider fear’s impact on learning. When the amygdala, the brain’s fear detector, is activated, learning decreases. When we are afraid, our bodies release stress hormones which negatively impact learning and memory. When we parent from a place of fear, we unavoidably transfer that fear onto our children. And in the learning context, what is the opposite of fear? ...Curiosity. How might we develop a greater sense of curiosity in our children without the often unnecessary obstacle of fear?
No doubt, parenting is scary. However, our own anxiety about the very real challenges we face and the very scary “possibilities” that abound are impacting our perspective and judgement. Kim Brooks, author of Small Animals: Parenting in the Age of Fear, details the very real implications of having left her four-year old son in the car while she ran into the store. The resulting fallout caused her to ask some really important questions about how we define “good” versus “bad” parenting and what the rise of fearful parenting says about ourselves.
I’m not sure what it says about us. It doesn’t really even matter what I think. What is important is that each of us takes a step back and evaluates the role that fear plays in the raising of our own children. Do we have a healthy relationship to fear and allow it to influence us in a balanced manner? Or, are our fears clouding our ability to give our children the space and agency necessary to appropriately individuate from us and grow into independent and responsible young adults? After all, isn’t that the ultimate measure of success?
At the end of the day, I hope that my own parenting involves a bit of that abandon that my own children exhibit as they shoot down the ski hill--with a knowledge that, sure, risk is innate, but with a little caution, enough preparation, and a good attitude, chances are pretty good that everything will turn out just fine...and I might even have a little bit of fun (yes, parenting can be fun!).
If you live in the Bay Area and want an opportunity to have your perspective on fear’s role in parenting pushed, please join us in Menlo Park for a presentation and conversation with Kim Brooks, the author of Small Animals: Parenting in the Age of Fear on Wednesday, March 4, 2020 at 6:30 p.m. at Hillview Middle School in Menlo Park. If you don’t live in the Bay Area or can’t make her talk, do yourself a favor and read the book or listen to the audio version. You’ll be glad you did!
Erik Burmeister is the Superintendent of Menlo Park City School District in the heart of Silicon Valley.