Preventing hurt: Are we harming or benefiting our children when we strive to avoid all pain?

The other day I was with my children at a local park.  It was a beautiful day and the park was unusually busy, the sound of children’s squeals and laughter could be heard all around.  It was then that I noticed the most adorable toddler nearby.  This toddler stood out as he had a balloon tied around his wrist and it was clear by the look on his face that he was absolutely delighted by it.  As he picked up his pace and the balloon flew through the air his toddler waddle became increasingly unstable.  And then the inevitable happened – he fell flat on his face.

Before he could even process what had happened his father immediately whisked him up, embraced him in his protective arms and comforted him.  The little boy, now realising that what had happened to him clearly must be a terrifying ordeal, was distraught.  He may have genuinely been afraid or hurt, but given the speed with which the father reacted, we can never really know.

Attempts to rescue children do not just occur with toddlers, they can be seen throughout all stages of children’s lives.  From completing homework when children start to find things challenging to dropping off lunch or homework at school and intervening in school issues, parents commonly try to safeguard their children from any difficulties.  They do so out of love and a desire to protect their children, but unfortunately, by doing so they deny their children the opportunity to experience natural consequences.

I get it, I really do.  It’s only natural for a parent to want to comfort and protect their child.  When they feel pain, you want to remove that pain.  When they are sad you want to comfort them.  You want to protect them and rescue them from everything life throws at them.  But is this really in their best interest?  In our quest to avert short term pain, are we preventing children from developing the very tools that they are required to deal with painful situations that will inevitably occur throughout life?  By constantly protecting and rescuing them, are we preventing them from gaining the skills and abilities they need to cope with such situations on their own?

How will children learn life lessons if we as parents shelter them from natural consequences?  How will they build resilience, if we do everything in our power to prevent them from ever being hurt?  When will they learn to understand that it is normal to experience ups and downs in life if we do not allow them to experience them as children?

I don’t have all the answers, in fact at various times I’ve done all of the above, and indeed sometimes it will be appropriate, sometimes we do need to intervene.  But often, when our toddlers fall over, we can casually say “oopsie daisy”, allow them to pick themselves up, brush themselves off, and continue to take those adorable unstable toddler steps.  They will look up, see us nearby, and know that if they truly need us we will be there for them. However, more often than not, they can navigate these small hurdles all on their own, and they will be better for it.