“You Will Get Hurt”: Getting Rid of the Certainty

I’ve noticed that it’s a human thing to be pretty darn certain about the things we speak of.  Even when we’re not certain or couldn’t possibly be certain.  Normally I don’t mind this at all as I know I’m as guilty as the next person about it, but a strange thing happened on my journey as a parent of a very independent and strong-minded girl: I became aware of how much we use this language to shape our children’s ideas about themselves and their capabilities and often it’s not in a positive way.

The first time I really noticed it was when my daughter and I were at one of the little café-type places in a hotel we were staying at after my grandmother had died over a year ago.  My girl loves to climb everything and anything and so at the time we had been explaining that not all places have the same rules we have at home about climbing.  She wasn’t thrilled to hear the news that everyone wasn’t as lax as us, but our explanation was always that it was their property and so they got to make the rules, something she actually accepted quite well despite not liking it.

At this one restaurant, she wasn’t even quite climbing, but was standing up leaning over the back to the bench towards the window (which was attached to the back of the bench) as I was having coffee and checking our itinerary for the day.  A waitress came over and told her she couldn’t do that.  I thanked her, told my daughter the rules at this place mean she couldn’t be up like that and my daughter took it and sat down.  The waitress decided to take it further and told my daughter, “If you climb on that, you will fall and hurt yourself.”

I can assure you there was no way my daughter was going to fall and hurt herself on this thing, and in this well-meaning (and very common) gesture, this waitress had opened Pandora’s box.  “No I won’t!” my daughter replied.  “I know how to be safe, so now can I climb?” she asked me.  I had to reiterate that I knew she would be safe, but the café still had rules and it was still their property so no she couldn’t climb.  (The waitress was unimpressed with me for suggesting that my daughter would be safe even though I can say again that it would have taken a real fluke of nature for her to actually hurt herself and actually gave me a very dirty look as she walked away.  I think she expected me to back her up that my daughter would hurt herself.)

Fast-forward to today and I have heard this type of certainty in our language with our children all the time from strangers to family to friends and anyone in between.  None of it is meant maliciously, but none of it actually helps either.  I have (largely) mastered not using “You will get hurt” when I don’t want my daughter to do something that worries me because chances are she won’t.  Now when I really don’t feel safe about something and I can’t articulate exactly what about this particular situation is unsafe, I focus on telling her my emotions about it and she actually respects that.  It means that if she finds someone comfortable with her trying it, she can.  And she has.  (I should add I’m terribly afraid of heights so things that my husband can deem safe send me into a full panic so I have explained to her my fears and the irrationality of my fear.)  If I can articulate what about the situation is so bad, then she knows my answer has nothing to do with her capabilities but rather the situation at hand.  For example, the other day when hiking by the ocean on some rocks, I had to ask her not to climb in certain areas because they were really slippery and led straight into the ocean.  Sometimes she even comes up with some pretty ingenious solutions to the safety problem making the situation safer and thus bearable for me.

When we focus on our answers on telling our kids what they can and can’t do, I firmly believe this stunts them to a degree.  The child who is consistently told that they will hurt themselves will internalize this and likely extend it to the point where s/he believes much will harm them.  If you believe this about yourself, how often will you take risks and try new things?  Not often.  If we can actually do proper risk-assessment and be honest about what worries us, we can open up a whole new dialogue with our kids about behaviour and safety.  We can build up their confidence in themselves without risking their well-being and our sanity.  We can allow them to explore and know that they will trust us when we ask them to stop.

Our children not being capable isn’t the problem.  The problem is our confidence in their abilities or our own fears taking over.  Sometimes these fears are rational and should be listened to.  Sometimes not.  At all times though, we should be honest with our kids about why we say no and not put something on them that lies on us.

Image via Flickr/Kayla Sawyer

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