“A child found a cocoon of a butterfly. One day a small opening appeared. He sat and watched the butterfly for several hours as it struggled to squeeze its body through the tiny hole. Then it stopped, as though it was unable to go any further.
The child decided to help the butterfly. He took a pair of scissors and snipped off the remaining bits of cocoon. The butterfly emerged easily, but its body was swollen and wings were shriveled.
The child continued to watch it, expecting that any minute the wings would enlarge and expand enough to support the body. Neither happened. In face, the butterfly spend the rest of its life crawling around. It was never able to fly.
What the child, in his kindness and haste, did not understand was that the struggle required by the butterfly to get through the opening was a way of forcing the fluid from its body into the wings so that it would be ready for flight. It was the struggle that the child tried to free the butterfly of that ensured its life. “ ~origins unknown
I first heard of this story during an herb class with Jim McDonald teaching about stress. Since then, I have seen and heard many parents acting out the child in this story. By preventing kids the many learning experiences they need for fear of bumps, bruises, or the chance of a broken bone, we take away their opportunity to “learn the lesson while the lesson is small”.
I think there are many areas in a child’s life where parents can get tunnel vision while making sure their kids survive. However, I want to focus on what can be gained by getting kids back out into nature and learning survival skills. This does not have to just mean chopping wood, starting fires, and hunting. This can simply be letting the kids explore without the guidance of an adult.
For example: my husband and I took our kids sledding/snowboarding a few weeks back. The hill we went to was not a huge hill but it did have a decent jump at the end. My son is a daredevil and loves to try ‘extreme’ anything, so this was the first thing he saw with a sparkle in his eye and a devilish grin across his face. At first we sat and watched the kids take the sleds down and hit the jump with no drama; I began to relax. My son then decided to get out the snowboard, go down the hill a few times, and then beeline straight for the jump. I had a split second to tell him to stop – to yell, “don’t go so fast!” – but I chose not to. I watched in horror as flashbacks of bringing him to the emergency room with a broken arm flashed before my eyes. He hit the jump so hard and shot into the sky like a rocket. All the other parents at this time, close to 20, were watching the crazy kid on the jump. When he hit he did not land it and he did not get up. However, he was okay. He was bruised and sore for a few days, but I promise he will think twice about how hard to hit a jump.
I look back on that moment and see what a great learning experience it was and if I had intervened he may not have had the chance to figure this out while adults were around and ready to help. Additionally, he now has a better idea of speed and balance.
It is hard to know what to do about every risk a child wants to take. How high is too high to climb a tree? How far is it safe to wander from home? When should a child learn to use a knife? In her article ‘The Overprotected Kid,’ Hanna Rosen explores these questions and states, “Children are born with the instinct to take risks in play, because historically, learning to negotiate risk has been crucial to survival; in another era, they would have had to learn to run from some danger, defend themselves from others, be independent. Even today, growing up is a process of managing fears and learning to arrive at sound decisions. By engaging in risky play, children are effectively subjecting themselves to a form of exposure therapy, in which they force themselves to do the thing they’re afraid of in order to overcome their fear. But if they never go through that process, the fear can turn into a phobia.”
Ellen Sandseter, a professor of early-childhood education at Queen Maud University College in Trondheim, Norway adds, “Our fear of children being harmed, may result in more fearful children and increased levels of psychopathology.”
Richard Rende, PhD puts it perfectly, “What’s important is that we embrace the idea that risk taking is a part of childhood, and it’s more about the process of learning how to take meaningful risks – rather than the immediate payoff – that will serve kids best in the long run.”
The parenting approach Love and Logic was and still is a great starting point for me in understanding natural consequences. Another good place to look for more information on this topic is the blog Free Range Kids.
Author: Angela McElroy is a former naturopathic practitioner of Continuum Healing. Now she integrates naturopathy and herbalism with animal therapy for children at Dorr to Eden.