Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Emotional Risk, Bruised Feelings, Resilient Kids

Lately I’ve been reading a lot about “risky play” – the idea that children need opportunities to engage in play that involves physical risks. Our collective fear of physical injury, however slight, has led parents and schools to limit or ban play that might involve physical risk (or for schools, that might involve liability suits). Recently there has been a push back against the movement to “bubble wrap” our kids, as educators, psychologists, and “free-range” parents extol the virtues of physical play that might involve scrapes and bruises.

But what about play that involves emotional risk?

Even in schools where teachers extol the virtues of climbing trees, stacking rocks, and letting children hang upside down from the monkey bars, teachers are still often vigilant about protecting kids from emotional risk. Rules like “You can’t say you can’t play” and “We use nice words at school”, intentional grouping of children to promote some friendship groups and break up others, and immediate adult intervention if a problem arises (whether it’s a block tower falling down or another child saying they don’t want to sit next to another child) create an environment where children are bubble-wrapped, cushioned, and shielded against sadness, disappointment, or anger.

We’ve confused risk with danger.

As adults, we have a responsibility to protect children from danger. We don’t leave jagged pieces of metal or broken shards of glass within reach. We put guard rails at the top of the slide, and padding under the monkey bars. We use seat belts and car seats. We have a responsibility to try to prevent serious injury, but we can’t prevent every injury. We need to learn, as teachers, parents, and caregivers, to distinguish between a puncture wound and a bruise. Bruises, scrapes, and splinters are unpleasant but non-threatening risks that are part of interacting with the physical world around us. Each bruise or scrape gives a child a chance to assess risk and develop the skill set to avoid a more potentially serious injury the next time around. And each bruise or scrape gives a child a chance to recover.

In The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, psychologist Wendy Mogel writes, “Real protection means teaching children to manage risks on their own, not shielding them from every hazard….If parents rush in to rescue them from distress, children don’t get an opportunity to learn that they can suffer and recover on their own.”

In our drive to keep children from suffering, we’ve forgotten that it’s also our responsibility to teach them how to recover. It’s our responsibility to help them learn that a bruise isn’t the same thing as a puncture.

We need to do this with emotions as well. Our vigilance to keep feelings from being hurt, to keep anyone from feeling excluded, to prevent disappointment at all costs, robs children of the important skill of learning to deal with these emotional bruises. Teachers who jump in to intervene the moment a child says “I don’t want to sit next to you”, parents who carry six different snacks so they’ll always have exactly what their child wants, are shielding their child from normal risk just as much as if they stopped their child from picking up a stick for fear of splinters. Bruised feelings, just like bruised skin, will happen. Our job as adults is to help children develop the emotional resilience to recover from the bruise and move on, and to teach them to recognize the difference between a bruise and a puncture.

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