From Bubble Wrap to Free Range? Is Caring for Kids really about protecting them?

You may say you can’t win for trying – “too much” or “not enough” seems to be the rally cry of the day levelled against parents. All kinds of socially constructed ideas, cultural judgements, and labels surround parenting today; including everything from “bubble-wrapping,” slow or “free-range” to “Helicopter Moms” and “Dolphin Dads” (or vice versa). So when I was invited to be a panelist on Alberta Primetime September 20th 2013┬áto discuss effective parenting, being a mother of 3 and a Sociologist who studies care I accepted.

Rather than a debate of polar opposites I think parenting is really more about the everyday care practices that make up our days (and nights!) as parents. It’s about not only what we do, but asking why: What’s behind our actions, our emotions, worries and anxieties about what it means to be a parent? To be responsible for the care, safety, nurturance and growth of our children is a gift not to take lightly and a heavy responsibility. Conversations about children’s safety tend to focus on physical danger and harms in their environment, but the research shows that one of the key considerations in keeping our children safe is his or her secure attachment to loving caregivers.

Focusing so much of our attention on the so-called 9 steps to Effective Parenting we may lose sight of the most important part about our parenting role – our relationships with our kids. We can become the most “effective” caregivers if we develop a trusting, meaningful connection with a child. This takes patience, respect, empathy, time and a whole lot of practice. Care is a practice. We learn how best to do it for our unique and special children. What “works” for one, for another – just DOESN’T! Research supports a parenting style called authoritative, described as a blend of warmth and limits, care with discipline.

Like our kids, we make mistakes too. We learn through experience what being a parent is about and we try again to do our best for our kids. I believe (and much early childhood literature supports this claim) the most important message we can give our children is a belief that they are loved and loveable, cared for and capable of caring. This happens as we interact with kids, as they get opportunities to learn, to grow, to make mistakes and learn from their experiences. Searching for some exact “how to,” a method we are to use to do this misses the point. Through our bonds with them they can develop a sense of compassion, for themselves and others.

A word of caution about bubble wrapping or free-ranging children: Our kids can’t become capable of getting out of harms way if we’re always attempting to take the harm (or potential risks) out of the way. Yet, standing on the sidelines without giving them the tools and skills they need to navigate their worlds we risk raising kids who lack self trust.

While dissecting each parenting moment or being too reflexive about what we do and why we do it is not healthy for us or our kids, perhaps taking some time to think about what lies behind our ideas about parenting can benefit our relationships with our children.

Raising resilient, responsible, and thriving adults does not happen through any one childcare practice or approach. Becoming who we are as human beings is a journey that lasts a lifetime.