01/14/2014 01:01 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Protecting vs. Overprotecting Our Children: Where's the Line?

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

Physically, I'm not a risk-taker. You won't see me climbing Mt. Everest or parachuting from an airplane. When I see young people participating in any kind of extreme sport my mind automatically starts to wonder how their mother survived watching her child hone those skills.

When it came to the physical aspects of raising my child, I often fell into the overprotective side. I had two miscarriages before his birth. I knew stories of families who had lost children to illnesses or in freakish accidents. Maternal fear took root early in my parenting process.

As a young mom I was busy building a business and when it came to anything that could be considered physically dangerous for my child, I didn't always have the time or desire to slow down, engage in, or supervise his explorations. I thought it was just easier to baby proof as much of my child's world as I could.

It all comes down to this: Know yourself. Know your child. Be intentional and make conscious decisions about what works best for you and your family. -- Jan Cloninger

But through the years, I've come to realize that fear is often a normal part of the parenting experience. If we don't learn to acknowledge and address it, our tendency to overprotect can actually hinder (and sometimes cripple) our children's development. After all, the goal of parenting is to raise productive, responsible adults. If we continually do everything on their behalf, limit their opportunities for exploration, and prevent them from taking risks - we also rob them of the opportunity to develop, make mistakes, bounce back, and know they can achieve.

Since founding A Place To Turn To (a non-profit that supports families throughout the parenting process) I've had the privilege of spending time with Rosemary Strembicki (our clinical consultant) and her grandbabies on many occasions. I am always in awe of the way that Rosemary is present to and teaches her grandchildren as they play with real tools; investigate clocks, stereos, and cameras in her house; work side-by-side with her in the kitchen; push their stool up to the silverware drawer and get the knives and forks out to set the table - all before they had turned 2! She constantly and consistently allows them opportunities to show her what they are capable of; she assists if/when they need help; and, more often than not, simply guides and encourages their explorations with her supportive words and "I know you can do it" assurances.

She intuitively and consciously recognizes that each situation is an opportunity for them to learn, gain confidence, and expand their competencies; knowing that she is giving them the best possible foundation for self-confidence, risk-taking, and success as they continue to grow.

I look back to when my son was little and I'm grateful my husband was similar to Rosemary so that my fears didn't impede my child's development!

We all know there are dangers in the world, and sometimes fear keeps us safe. But how do we find the line between protecting and overprotecting our children?

It all comes down to this: Know yourself. Know your child. Be intentional and make conscious decisions about what works best for you and your family.

Think about a past, current, or future circumstance or opportunity that you think is too risky or dangerous for your child. Then ask yourself some questions as you make your decision of whether to allow it or not:

• Are you allowing natural or irrational fear guide your decision? If you could quiet the fear, might your child benefit from an experience you're afraid of?

• Are you allowing your past experience (or lack of experience) in a similar circumstance prevent you from giving your child a chance at trying something new?

• What's your child's temperament? Is your child too much of a risk-taker and you need to provide strong limits? Or does your child avoid risks and you need to encourage exploration and new possibilities?

• Is this something your child is interested in? Even if it's not something you enjoy, by saying no are you limiting your child's process of learning or self-discovery?

• Is there someone else in your child's life that could encourage exploration and oversee the risks in areas where you're not as comfortable?

Yes, my maternal fear over possible physical risks my son takes pops up from time to time (when he has a big travel adventure or the time he went parachuting!) but because I never want my fears to limit him, I've learned to manage it. I also realize that I did teach him how to take risks in other areas of his life (ones I was more comfortable with), like exploring and expressing his emotions, discovering and developing his gifts, working outside the system when it wasn't serving him well, and following his own voice (even when it was different than mine!).

We all have our strengths. We all have our limits. We all have those things that we're comfortable with and those things that completely terrify us. But when it comes to our children it's often wise to ask: am I protecting them for my sake or for theirs?

You can view other articles, videos, or contact Jan at

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