“Look at what I found!”
My daughter was four years old and the time, and she was proudly holding up a snake she had tracked down and caught. “I got it all by myself!” she said.
Now, I’m a pretty adventurous parent who has always encouraged a love of nature and the outdoors, but my first reaction was to freak out. Snakes are one of my weaknesses (aka nightmares), and I immediately thought of all these dangerous scenarios that were about to unfold.
Even though my first reaction was to scream out words of warning, the rational part of my brain took over and I saw she was holding a baby garter snake. My kids and I had actually talked about garter snakes before, and about how they’re relatively harmless where we live in Wisconsin. Maybe we needed a refresher about wildlife homes, but it was kind of cool! As I saw the jaws drop of other nearby parents, watching her hold the snake, I suddenly had this new sense of pride. I was impressed, in awe, and completely jealous!
Why a Little Danger Makes Us Better
The snake incident isn’t the only so-called dangerous situation I’ve had as a parent, but it’s definitely one of the most memorable. Both of my kids have always loved the outdoors, so we’ve had our fair share of adventure... though some parents might call in danger.
For instance, I remember the time my son disappeared from the hiking trail, only to find that he had climbed high up in the treetops so he could get a better view. Or the time my daughter wobbled across a fallen log high above a stream. Or when I finally allowed my son to sleep outside by himself in his tent hammock after he had begged me for more than a year.
It’s easy to look at instances like these as dangerous or scary moments that we need to keep our kids away from, but I believe this overprotectiveness actually hurts them more. Sure, my kids might fall, get some scrapes, or even get peed on by the toad they’re trying to catch. But these so-called dangerous things really aren’t that risky; plus, not doing those things actually makes me worry more.
Periods of outdoor time and free play are dramatically decreasing for our youth, according to studies. As parents, we are less likely to allow our children to be unsupervised or just “go outside and play” the way that we all did as kids. This might not seem like a big deal, but having free reign teaches some mighty important skills, including confidence, problem-solving, self discovery, and even the willingness to take risks.
This doesn’t come without other consequences, too. At the same time that we’re discouraging our kids from trying adventurous things, we’re also seeing a rise in helicopter parenting. Plus, kids are spending more time inside and on electronics than ever before — about seven hours of screen time per day (!) to be exact.
Finding a Balance for Living Life Dangerously
So where’s the balance between letting kids be dangerous or adventurous, yet listening to our inner parental voice that wants to keep them safe? Believe me, I understand that voice. Just last summer, I worked up the courage to allow my 13-year-old son to walk to the store two blocks away from our city home to buy some bread. I prepped him (and threatened him) ahead of time about using the crosswalks and not being irresponsible, but I still had fears. It very much felt like I was allowing him to do this dangerous, risky thing — yet he was completely thrilled for the opportunity. And (spoiler alert), he was completely fine.
No one can really tell you what you child can and can’t handle when it comes to risky situations, but I understand the constant balancing act. For me, it’s about letting go just a bit and trying to give my kids a little extra space — even when I don’t want to.
Whether you call it being dangerous, risky, or just adventurous, these are the moments that we learn and grow from. They teach us things about ourselves that we never really knew. They help us set and even push our boundaries. And they actually set us up for future success.
Now, I did have a conversation with my daughter about that snake — why we shouldn’t pick up random wildlife and how there are some snakes out there that are quite dangerous. But I hope she continues to do dangerous things for a long time to come.
Stacy Tornio is the author of The Kids’ Outdoor Adventure Book and the mom of two adventurous kids. Together, they like planning vacations centered around the national parks.