23 Ways To Be Less Overprotective

Some simple tips to help you loosen up and encourage your kids to develop resilience and independence.

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Protecting your kids sits at the top of a parent’s job list. And in worlds both real and virtual, there’s certainly a lot to protect them from. Many parents rise to the task but develop habits that limit a child’s growth. We get it: It’s hard to know when you’re being overprotective or just, well, protecting. However, research shows it can cause kids to struggle in school and develop antisocial behavior patterns.

Dialing your protective instinct back can be a challenge, but it’s important to notice the signals for when it needs to happen and begin to make the necessary micro-adjustments.

“Our children are telling us, verbally and non-verbally, where they’re ready for more freedom and where they’re not,” says Carl Nassar, Ph.D., a licensed professional counselor. “Give them small, incremental freedoms in the ways they feel ready for. Kids want freedom on the one hand and safety on the other. Work together in small steps and you’ll find your way forward.”

Now, releasing kids from a bubble of overprotectiveness isn’t without its risks. Giving kids freedom and responsibility will undoubtedly cause discomfort for both you and them. But even when loosening the reins results in a slight scare, minor scrapes or bruises, a mess to clean up, or a challenging emotion to sit with, those incidents can provide invaluable learning experiences. And, no matter the age of your kids, that’s the big thing that needs to happen.

As learning to let younger kids out of their protective bubbles can be difficult, here is a list of simple things to consider allowing them to do. Ranging from small reminders to fight bad behaviors to expert suggestions that aid a child’s emotional growth, the tips can recalibrate your shielding instincts and help both you and your kids evolve in the process.

1. Say Yes To Sprinting

No, you don’t want them sprinting on a pool deck or at the grocery store. That’s not what we’re advising. But kids don’t need to be reminded to slow down when the urge strikes them to run to the end of the sidewalk on your family walk or sprint down the driveway to be the first person in the car. Let them hit the gas when they want to.

2. Don’t Hold Hands While Crossing The Street

Once a kid hits grade school, they’ve likely developed enough impulse control to walk beside you when crossing the street without holding hands. As long as they are within arm’s reach, they should be able to make it to the other side without incident.

3. Let Them (Safely) Play With Sharp Things

And, according to psychiatrist and author Dr. Lea Lis, M.D., there’s no better testing ground for this than the kitchen. Teach them how to cook and use scissors and knives more independently,” she says. “Taking the time to teach kids how to do so safely provides them a great life skill and will contribute to their self-confidence by helping them feel like they can prepare meals for themselves.”

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Speed and height are two types of risky play that help kids develop resilience, self-confidence, independence, executive functioning capabilities, and risk management skills. Encouraging your kid to try out the tallest slide on the playground is an excellent way for them to experience both elements — and highlight your confidence in them.

5. Throw Sticks Into The Fire

Yes, fire safety is essential. No harm will come from them throwing small sticks into the fire pit from a couple of feet away with your supervision. “What goes in the fire pit stays in the fire pit” is a generally safe guideline that lets kids have some fun while ensuring they don’t start playing sword fight with flaming sticks.

6. Wrestle And Pillow Fight

Go ahead and grapple with them. Power slam them onto pillows. Let them drop on you from the couch. Rough-and-tumble play is a fun fitness and bonding opportunity and another great example of risky play.

7. Don’t Overreact To Mistakes

This is a big one. The poker face is your friend. When that bowl of Cheerios gets spilled all over the kitchen floor, roll with a simple “oops!” and work together with your kid to clean up the mess. Keeping your cool will help a shame response from rearing its ugly head and communicate that making mistakes is OK.

8. Stop Saying “Are You Sure?”

This question communicates that the situation makes you uncomfortable, and you’re hoping your child will pick up on that nervous vibe.

9. Ask For Their ideas

When your kid comes to you with a problem, the urge to fix it immediately is likely strong. But they might have some good ideas about what to do next. “Before you jump in, ask your child if they have any ideas about what to do next,” Benjamin says. “When it’s your turn, suggest they use a healthy self-regulation or coping skill instead of jumping straight to solutions to the problem. Show confidence in your child’s ability to manage these situations.”

10. Have Your Kid Order Their Own Food

“When eating at a restaurant, allow your child to communicate with the waitstaff instead of doing it for them,” Lis suggests. “You could also let them pay for their own items at the store. Learning how to communicate with unfamiliar people and talk respectfully to service providers are important life skills that kids can practice from an early age.”

11. Let Them Pick Their Friends

Try not to force friendships onto your kid — or gatekeep those they make. If there’s someone they’re particularly drawn to that you don’t know or whose parents you aren’t totally comfortable with, then arrange play dates at parks or invite the friend’s family over to your house to get to know them better.

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Now that adult coloring books are a thing, kids have a much longer runway in life to practice coloring. But seriously. Just let them express themselves artistically when their creative endeavors veer into the abstract.

13. Send Them To Day Camp

Day camps have to follow a boatload of safety protocols. It might be tough for you to let go for a few hours, but your kid will have a blast and will be well-monitored. For kids who are used to being at home with a parent all day, it’s a great way to build up to school or overnight camp. And honestly, you could probably use some time to yourself.

14. Stop Asking If There Is Anything You Can Do For Them

Offering to do things for your kids too often will inhibit them from learning to do things on their own. When kids need something, they will generally ask.

15. Let Them Get Their Own Snack

Most kids are more than capable of filling their own cup of water, grabbing a snack out of the cupboard, or peeling their own banana as long as you teach them that the easiest way to do so is from the base as opposed to at the stem.

16. Let Them Play With Bigger Kids

There’s a certain allure to trying to keep up with older kids. They’re just so… cool. And while kids a couple of years older than yours may look like a herd of elephants to your eye, it’s unlikely they’ll trample your kid underfoot. If they’re willing to allow for a tagalong, just roll with it.

17. Don’t Freak Out About Dirt

So what if your kid comes home with muddy shoes or filthy pants? Jumping in mud puddles is good, (un)clean fun and squeezing it is classic sensory play. Dirt is easy to wash off of skin, usually not much of a pain to get out of clothing, and seldom something to freak out about.

18. Stop Checking In

When a kid is playing quietly, consider it a blessing and enjoy the peace and quiet while it lasts. If you’re concerned about silent mischief, there’s no shame in peeking in to ensure everyone makes good choices. But it's OK to give kids space to play independently.

19. Shut Up And Listen

Sometimes, kids verbalize their problems because they want an adult to listen and not because they want advice. With decades of lived experience, parents will often have helpful wisdom to impart. But that’s not always what kids want — or need.

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Kids are notorious for bucking conventional fashion wisdom when choosing their outfits. But as long as what they are wearing is at least socially appropriate in the neighborhood and fits the occasion, then those mismatching patterns aren’t hurting anyone.

21. Encourage Them To Talk To Their Teacher

Before firing off an email the moment you see a low assignment grade show up in the online portal, encourage your kid to talk to their teacher about what happened. You can always reach out to the teacher directly if a trend begins to emerge, but a one-off or occasional blip on the grade card is a great opportunity for kids to learn how to take ownership of their education.

22. Don’t Complain About Their Coach Or The Ref

When your kid doesn’t perform as well as you’d like them to on the field, the issue is likely your expectations. Even if the coach or referee made some mistakes, it’s best to keep those complaints to yourself instead of trying to protect your kid’s confidence by blaming other parties. Everyone out there is doing their best, including your kid.

23. Wait For Them To Ask For Help

One of the most challenging needles for a parent to thread is letting kids struggle enough with difficult tasks that they develop the ability to grow and improve over time. The impulse for many parents is to intervene when they see their kid accidentally skip a step on the LEGO instruction sheet, but letting them figure out why things aren’t working out on their own can help them become better problem-solvers down the road.

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