Testing Their Own Limits

Keeping our kids too safe may eliminate challenges that boost their resiliency.

Testing Their Own Limits


A 4-yr old boy is on the big climber at the playground, his Dad standing below. As the boy makes his way up and up, Dad continually admonishes him in an anxious tone to go no higher. By the time the boy is close to the top, Dad’s pleas are frantic. Finally catching on that he should be frightened too, the little boy begins to cry.

Is it possible we sometimes try to keep our children too safe, or that we remove too many obstacles from their life’s path? Until recently, many of us may have answered this question with a resounding “no”. Yet, a number of current international studies on uncovering and nurturing resiliency in our youth suggest otherwise: kids thrive when they find themselves in challenging situations they feel they can handle, and their ability to rise to the occasion is directly proportional to the amount and kind of support they receive from the caring adults around them.

So, rather than plowing them out an easy road to success, we would do well to allow our kids to find their footing on rocky ground, while at the same time teaching them to be self-aware, responsible, and independent.

Wrong choices/right reasons

Everyone has some inner resiliency, hidden or not. Rather than a skill to be taught, it is a quality to be sought and strengthened, similar to integrity or perseverance. Our own resiliency can be measured by the extent to which we manage stressful situations – demanding tasks, emotional loss, etc. – while maintaining our inner focus and self-esteem, or what experts refer to as our mental and emotional health.

Many times children do things that simply make us shake our heads and wonder,“Why?!” As adults, we believe we know what’s best so we impose this knowledge on the child’s actions and judge them to be wrong. And though the actions themselves may be inappropriate or even dangerous – taking another child’s toy or riding a bike downhill without a helmet, for instance – the underlying motivation will have meaning for that child’s sense of self and personal power. In other words, they are getting what they need, but they’re going about it in a destructive or dysfunctional way.

Our job is simply to support them in getting what they need in a less hurtful way. This includes fostering self-awareness by asking specific kinds of questions to help them give language to their feelings and needs (see sidebar on right). We can then offer more positive substitutions for their unhealthy actions that fulfill the same purpose, such as giving attention to the child who took another’s toy because he may be feeling lonely or providing new, more challenging sports activities to the one seeking excitement by taking risks. It does not include removing all possible dangers from a child’s daily life in the name of keeping them and those around them safe.

Free to fail

It turns out that one of the gravest errors we can make as our children’s parents, educators, mentors and models, is to take away any chance our kids have of making their own mistakes in the name of keeping them from repeating our own. By sanitizing their environment – literally and figuratively – we effectively remove opportunities for failure, all the while believing this to be the best way to pave their road to success.

But what of innovation, advancement or enlightenment? We know from our own experiences that these things come only in the face of great challenge, struggle and sometimes pain. Whether in science, business, sport or even relationship, true growth only comes by overcoming significant obstacles, not by removing them altogether.

The real challenge we face as parents/mentors, is to strike a balance between enabling and crushing. Driving your child to lessons and encouraging practice at home supports his desire to compete in gymnastics, while placing him in high level competitions for which he is neither physically trained nor mentally prepared can have devastating results. In order to help kids tap into that inner well of resiliency, they require a blend of calculated risk taking and appropriate levels of support.

Resiliency expert Michael Ungar calls this type of support ‘scaffolding’, which embodies the idea that kids need to learn to navigate their challenges independently under the watchful eye of a community of caring adults. This caring can take the form of :

  • listening to their concerns,
  • validating their feelings,
  • taking the time to train them to manage unfamiliar situations, and
  • actively responding to their requests for assistance.

What kids need from us is our acknowledgment of their innate value and importance. We can offer this not with constant praise, but by consistently sending them the message that we believe in them and their abilities, and that we are willing to do whatever we can to help them succeed.

Finding balance

Our responsibility as the caring adult community is to help kids find that balance between risk and safety. We want them to test their own limits without tragedy – the consequences of failure or falling short need to be significant enough to count without being devastating. That playground Dad may have missed a golden opportunity to teach his son how to keep himself safe while taking manageable amounts of risk: at each step up, dad might have asked, “How do you feel? Are your feet steady? Are you hanging on tight? Have you gone high enough?”

Every child has an inner level of personal risk tolerance, an innate willingness to extend himself or in some way take chances. Our first task is to help them locate themselves on that scale of tolerance – they need to be clear about how much is too much or not enough for them. Then, by encouraging our children to try new things – foods, sports, games, activities – or take on more responsibilities – looking after a pet, babysitting, driving a car – we help them use their resiliency to stretch out and grow as they become increasingly self reliant, and ultimately successful, productive, happy adults.



Fostering resiliency in our children requires that the doorway of communication stay open in order to promote self-awareness. Ideally, we want conversations with our kids to be productive rather than confrontational, particularly when addressing delicate issues. Coming from a position of not knowing goes a long way to generating successful dialogue. When approaching your child or teen on a tricky topic, try asking these types of questions:
? How are you feeling?
? What are/were you thinking?
? What is/was your goal in this situation?
? How did that outcome make you feel?
? What was it that worked for you or that you liked?
? Would you do things differently given another opportunity?
? What would you like to do next?
? How can I support you?



Resiliency plays a big role in student success both in and out of class. Recent Canadian study data identified specific factors that had an even greater long term positive influence on students than their academic performance:
❱ People that can act as mentors, be trusted and counted on in times of trouble.
❱ Parents who value education.
❱ Friends who value education.
❱ Teachers who treat students with respect, are considered fair, and provide extra help when needed.
❱ Access to information and support.
❱ Participation in volunteer work and extracurricular activities, both at school and in the community.
❱ A belief in oneself and one’s ability to succeed.
❱ Taking the initiative to acquire information and skills.
❱ Perserverance in the face of difficulty.
❱ Avoiding risky, self-destructive behaviours.

Author: Sasha Korper

Sasha Korper is dedicated to helping kids have more fun while they learn. She works and lives in Northumberland with her husband and youngest daughter.

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