I recently joined Dr. T. Berry Brazelton in the celebration of his 95th birthday. A great storyteller, Berry regaled me with tales from his long, interesting life, including stories he shares in his new autobiography, Learning to Listen.
He’s studied families around the world. One story is from the Mayan babies of Zinacantan in southern Mexico. Nights are cold in this mountainous region, so families live in small round mud huts, warmed by a fire in the middle of the floor.
When babies begin to crawl, parents watch as they reach out and touch the fire with one finger. Howling in pain, they’re scooped up by their loving parents for comfort. These babies learn that fire is to be avoided at all costs, and from that moment on, they know to stay away.
Watching while a baby burns his finger would be unthinkable in the U.S. where parents do everything in their power to make the path ahead smooth.
But this hovering may not ultimately be in the best interest of the child. While a parent’s protective instincts are necessary, some overly protective parents may be denying their children some pretty important lessons.
The goal of childhood is to prepare kids to live successfully in a world full of bumps and scrapes. Even from toddlerhood, kids learn consequences from their own risky behavior. They learn not to bite their friends in child care or pull the dog’s tail, for example.
Opportunities for this learning abound when children go to school. When he forgets his gym shoes, do you jump in the car and drive them to him or do you let him get sidelined for PE that day? Either response might be appropriate. Only parents know which lessons their children seem to be ready to learn.
When parents intervene before a child experiences a consequence, they short-circuit the learning process. I’m not advocating for letting kids experience serious injury, but I hope parents will use discretion in deciding when it’s appropriate for a child to learn a safe lesson now and then.