How many parents today would agree with this statement? Our instincts focus around protecting our children and keeping them safe from harm, so messages arguing for challenging our children and actually encouraging them to take risks may seem contradictory.

But this is exactly what child development experts and their research is telling us: in order to help our children prepare for life outside our direct supervision and develop the capacity to deal with unexpected events such as failure, we need to support children to develop the skills and frame of mind to do this. In other words, by providing children with training and experience in managing risk, solving challenges, recovering from setbacks, and dealing with disappointment and failure, we are helping them learn to make better decisions and prepare for life. If not us as parents, then who?

Resilient children do better in later life.

Building brains

Children’s brains are primed for learning in the early years, and experiences in the first five years lay the foundation for future learning and development. By guiding our children through appropriate, challenging situations, providing a stimulating environment, and encouraging risk-taking, we help the child’s brain form problem-solving templates they can draw on when faced with difficulties and roadblocks in life. This can provide the child with confidence in dealing with life’s unexpected events and the resources to recover from setbacks, otherwise known as resilience. Simply put, resilient children do better in later life.

Responsible risk-taking

Why is risk-taking so important? We are not talking about reckless, life-threatening risks, but responsible and appropriate risk-taking. We all need to take social and physical risks in life; to form new relationships, get better jobs, and access new experiences and learning, and appropriate risk-taking is a skill we need to teach our children. We do this by stimulating and challenging them, guiding them through the process with encouragement, and by setting boundaries to help decision-making.

Think about your child’s future – teenagers’ brains are geared toward taking risks and they will be more equipped to better assess big risks and make appropriate decisions if their brains have training and experience with smaller risks in their early years.

Children’s brains are primed for learning in the early years, and experiences in the first five years lay the foundation for future learning and development.

Emotional regulation

So what does challenging and stimulating our children mean, and how do we do this? One researcher described this as “temporarily destabilising” children; briefly raising their excitement levels above normal so they learn to manage this situation (with our support) and return to emotional balance. This teaches emotional regulation, a vital part of resilience.

With older children, this can include physical play with a degree of unpredictability – chasey and play wrestling, as well as friendly scaring and teasing games and use of humour.

Babies need more care with appropriate support and safety, but can be gently stimulated by slow movement through the air, lifting, and bouncing on your knees or tummy. The golden rule is of course safety, and checking in with your child to ensure they are happy and a willing participant in this activity.

Every child has a different temperament; some can’t get enough of these games, while others prefer less boisterous activities, so keep this in mind. The important thing is that by exciting our child and then helping them learn to calm themselves down, we are training their brains and bodies to deal with unexpected events and changes in emotion.

By providing children with training and experience in managing risk, solving challenges, recovering from setbacks, and dealing with disappointment and failure, we are helping them learn to make better decisions and prepare for life.

Praising effort pays off

Providing appropriate challenges to our children promotes problem-solving skills, effort and persistence (keeping at it) – all important parts of resilience. Praise alone does not build resilience.

In fact research has shown that overpraising children about their abilities can have the reverse effect by promoting a false sense of confidence.  We are learning that praise for effort is far more effective than just praise about ability. A number of studies have shown that children who are praised for trying hard consistently persist at a task longer as it gets more difficult compared to children praised for how smart they are. This is important because research supports the proverb “success is 10 per cent inspiration and 90 per cent perspiration”.

Friendly competition

As well as letting children explore and play outside, we can play friendly competitive games with our children as they grow (chasey, keepie-off, play wrestling etc). While always keeping in mind the golden rules mentioned above, share the winning and losing with your child and ensure that in order to “win”, your child has tried hard. 

When they “lose” we can encourage with words such as “you almost got it that time, keep trying harder”, help them develop new strategies and approaches, and of course praise their effort when it is evident. It is not difficult to see the lesson here – sometimes we win, sometimes we lose, but success takes planning, effort and persistence. This practical lesson will be far more effective than any lecture from us.

Experience shows that dads, in particular, enjoy engaging with their children in this way, but these types of interactions from both parents play a vital role in their child’s development and future outcomes. Children who have lots of unstructured, challenging play and feel confident to take risks, will most likely be more ready to face the challenges of life as they grow older, and isn’t that what we want for our children?

For more information visit www.ngala.com.au or call Ngala’s helpline on (08) 9368 9368.

Author

Ngala is a provider of Early Parenting and Early Childhood services with a passion for supporting and guiding families and young children through the journey of parenting.

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