Can You Protect Your Kids from Themselves?

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This week my babysitter took my kids to the zoo, while I worked from a coffee shop in town. My daughters are 6 and 9. They are capable, bright, and incredibly active. The zoo was the perfect place for them to run off some energy, be entertained, maybe even pet a goat. My oldest daughter wanted the babysitter to take a picture of a peacock preening to show me later, so the babysitter turned away from my youngest just long enough to snap a picture and show it to the biggest. While her back was turned my littlest decided to crawl under the wood barriers, designed to keep curious children away from the coyote exhibit. When she turned around my youngest was already scaling the second fence, on her way (I can only assume) to cuddle a coyote.

zoo warning sign

Fortunately, she saw her before she was in any real danger and called her back. She reprimanded her, and explained that the gates are there to protect her from wild animals. Of course, my 6 year old already KNOWS that. She knows that the barrier is there to keep her out, she knows that wild animals are…well…wild. She knows exactly how to behave at a zoo. But kids are kids. Sometimes even when you have shown them every possible danger, and warned them of the consequences they still choose wrong. Because children have free will…and terrible decision making skills.

My babysitter could hardly meet my eyes when she told me this story, this was literally her second day on the job and the Gorilla thing had JUST happened. She was wholly unsure of how I would react.

I laughed. Seriously. I laughed hard. This poor girl! She’s a 20-something with no kids and my wild child had given her a pretty good scare. I saw her face flood with relief, and we joked for a few minutes about how my youngest acts like she was raised by coyotes and she was just trying to return home. I told her I knew she was attentive, that my littlest is fast and mischievous. I told her it wasn’t her fault…because it wasn’t her fault. Let me repeat…this wasn’t her fault. My daughter made a split second terrible choice and no amount of attentive adults surrounding her could have stopped her. Because my daughter has free will, and terrible decision making skills.

This story of my daughter trying to return home to the coyotes will join a long list of tales in our family folklore where children did wildly dangerous things.

Let me start by saying I am the youngest of 5 children, I was born in the 80’s and my parents were loving and attentive. However, they had 5 very independent and clever children, and they didn’t keep us on physical leashes, so we each have a HORRIBLE story of “that time when” we did something stupid, dangerous, harmful, and potentially lethal. Not because my parents weren’t keeping an eye on us, but because children can, and frequently will, do stupid, dangerous, harmful and potentially lethal things. Because children have free will and terrible decision making skills.

This is my story. It happened in the late 80’s when I was about 5 years old. This was at the height of kids on milk boxes, and rumors of razor blades in Halloween candy. Stranger Danger was taught at my kindergarten, and after the tragedy of the Walsh Kidnapping, my mom implemented a family password and practiced with us what we should do if we felt we were in danger. I was a part of the first generation raised by fear mongering, just as the 24-hour news cycle began looking for anything to fill their hours of daily programming. My mom had warned us again and again about talking to strangers and wandering off, because she had incredibly social children who never thought anyone was a stranger or dangerous.

So we went on a family trip, along with about 10 other people, to a massive amusement park in Ohio: Cedar Point. We were a fairly large pack, and the children outnumbered the adults. I was the youngest and there wasn’t a whole lot that I could (or wanted to) ride. I was, however, obsessed with the geese. Shockingly my adult companions did not find the geese as captivating as I did, and they moved onto the next ride. I did not. I decided to slip away from them and play with the geese on my own. When I grew tired of the geese I found the nearest security guard (who looked like a policeman to me at the time) and told him I was separated from my family. He brought me to an air conditioned hut where I played with toys and had a ball, while my family frantically searched for me for an hour. I am pretty sure this experience shaved 5 years off my mother’s life. Now it’s something that we laugh about. Because children wander off. Because (I don’t know if I mentioned this, but…) children have a free will and terrible decision making skills.

There’s a lot of parent shaming going around the interwebs right now. Lot’s of blame and judgment. Lots of “how could you” and “I would never.” Pretending that we can protect children from their self-will. Acting as though we can protect them from those terrible, possibly lethal decisions. But we can’t. To pretend that we can is a facade. Children scale fences at the zoo, they slip away at amusement parks. Sometimes they get hurt. And there is nothing we can do.

Helicopter parenting

My mom jokes that when she found me she was immediately relieved that I wasn’t dead…and then wanted to kill me. And that’s the thing. We want so much to protect our kids, and we get SO FRUSTRATED when they fail to comply. When they do the dangerous thing. When they put themselves at risk. Thankfully, my story turned out well. My mom didn’t have to face the entire internet telling her she was a terrible mother. Telling her that if I had been harmed it would have been her fault. If (God forbid) my daughter had succeeded in cuddling a coyote, my sitter and I wouldn’t need to be called to the carpet. All three of us, my mother, my sitter and myself, are attentive caregivers…unfortunately we are all saddled with children who happen to have a free will and terrible decision making skills.

YOU CAN NOT PROTECT YOUR KIDS FROM THEMSELVES. Not really. Not always. Not for every second of every day. You have to sleep, Honey. Showers will happen. A few years ago while I was in the shower my daughter came out of her room, where she was supposed to be napping, grabbed a set of keys and jammed it into a plug. Afterwards she told me she felt shaky..and I told her I felt shaky too. BECAUSE I COULDN’T BE THERE TO STOP HER. She had 15 minutes alone. She figured out how to remove the plug covers. She was bright and curious…and she got an up close understanding of how electricity works. Again, THANK GOD nothing worse happened.

The idea that mothers are responsible to protect their children from everything every second of every day is wholly unreasonable, and frankly, a bit insane. As much as I hate parent shaming, I also hate the “in my day” shaming of the generation behind you…so bear with me. Millennials are not the worst. Truly. Just as the Gen-X & Gen-Y before them weren’t the worst either. But this weird thing that happened somewhere in the 80’s. This idea of “protecting children” was born, and it has morphed into a culture of shaming and blaming parents who are not capable putting their children under 24 hour lock down, with surveillance. It has created a generation of overly sheltered kids, whose parents are so afraid of the shaming they will endure if they make bad decisions, that they aren’t letting them make any decisions at all.

My oldest daughter is 9. I often feel terrible for her. When I was her age I would ride my bike all around town. I would play outside all summer. We would bike over to friend’s houses to swim, or the playground. There was a dairy queen just down the street and sometimes I would save up my change and buy an ice cream cone. All on my own. Without a cell phone to track me or my parents keeping me in their eye line at all times. See my mom gave me boundaries and warnings, but then she trusted me to take those boundaries and warnings into the world on my own. To make choices, to experience consequences…and not all of them rosy. At 9 I was given more freedom and responsibility than most preteens/teenagers are given these days.

How are children ever going to be able to make good decisions and learn good judgment if they aren’t also permitted to make VERY BIG mistakes. And how are children going to make those mistakes and learn from them if parents are TERRIFIED of someone capturing those mistakes on video and dealing with the unrelenting judgment of strangers on the internet?

Children have free will, and terrible decision making skills, and so they have adults to help them. To teach them good choices, and help them deal with the fallout of bad ones. Sometimes their mistakes lead to tragedy. However, judgment and shaming…those don’t have to be a part of this equation.

So the next time you hear about a kid making a dangerous decision, especially if it’s a stranger on the internet…pause and ask yourself these questions.

  • When you were a child, were your parents able to prevent you from making dangerous mistakes?
  • Are you capable of monitoring your children every moment of the day to shelter them from danger?
  • Is it even in their best interest to try?

Parent shaming is really about the belief that we are more powerful than we actually are. That if we were in the same situation WE would choose better. It’s a lie. Children have a free will, and terrible decision making skills…but then so do adults who parent shame on the internet.

lexiLexi is a former foster mom who writes about her journey from infertility to adoption and all the ups and downs of motherhood. Through humor, and not a little bit of awkwardness, she shares her heart’s desire, to be a Vessel unto Honor, used by God to bless and encourage others.


  1. Very well said, Lexi!!

  2. I agree… I think it’s better for kids to make mistakes when they are younger and the consequences are usually much less devastating (ie a broken toy or leg) than when they are older and the consequences can be severe (ie a bad car accident). Children need to exercise their judgement muscles.

  3. This is a topic that’s near to my heart… Many thanks!

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