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How to Move Away From Fear-Based Parenting

Three simple ways to counter the urge to overprotect

Lenore Skenazy

Published on: August 29, 2022


Editor's note: This article was first published on Let Grow, the nonprofit promoting childhood independence and resilience, which provides free materials for schools and parents. It is reprinted here by permission.

A parent’s need to protect their child from danger is a natural instinct. The problem is that parents these days seem to see danger everywhere they look. How can you learn to overcome fear-based parenting and let your kids become strong and independent? I spoke with Barbara Sarnecka, Ph.D., a cognitive sciences professor at the University of California–Irvine, to get some simple tips to help anxious parents learn to let go of the fear.

Sarnecka was part of a team of researchers at UC–Irvine that conducted an amazing study a number of years ago. The researchers wondered why people are often so worried when they see children on their own. As they point out in the paper’s abstract:

“In recent decades, Americans have adopted a parenting norm in which every child is expected to be under constant direct adult supervision. Parents who violate this norm by allowing their children to be alone, even for short periods of time, often face harsh criticism and even legal action. This is true despite the fact that children are much more likely to be hurt, for example, in car accidents. Why then, do bystanders call 911 when they see children playing in parks, but not when they see children riding in cars?”

The researchers concluded that it came down to a matter of morals. In short, people felt there was something morally wrong about leaving kids on their own. That moral judgment led them to assume that those kids were automatically in danger.

Parents themselves have to overcome an internal voice that’s constantly telling them, “Don’t leave your kids alone! That makes you a terrible parent! Something awful is going to happen to them!” So I asked Sarnecka how we can counter the idea that any time a child is unsupervised, they’re automatically in danger. These are the tips she offered to overcome fear-based parenting.

Consider other tiny risks we ignore every day.

Suppose your child asks if they can walk to the neighborhood playground two blocks away with a friend. Your first fear-based thought might be But if they go on their own, they could get kidnapped by a stranger! Sarnecka points out that statistically, the risk of this is really low. So, compare it to other low-risk situations and think about how you make decisions in those cases. Here’s an example she uses:

“The last time you drove somewhere and parked your car, did you choose your parking space based on the possibility that there could be snipers on the roofs of the buildings around you? Did you say, ‘Well, if I park here, snipers on that building could get me. But if I park over there, the awning will shield me’?”

Probably not, right? Now, could you really be 100 percent sure that there weren’t snipers on the buildings? No, because it’s not impossible. But it’s so unlikely that you just don’t worry about it. You would be nuts to plan your parking around such a remote possibility.

Here’s another way to look at it: The likelihood of being involved in a traffic accident is a lot higher than that of your kid being abducted. But we drive in cars with kids all of the time. No one has ever called the police simply because they saw a parent driving with a kid in the car (assuming the parent is following safety guidelines, of course). But if parents let their kids play on their own in a park a few blocks from home, they legitimately run the risk of someone calling the police on them.

As a parent, Sarnecka says, you have the right to decide that your child benefits from walking to school alone, playing in a park or riding their bike with friends. If you feel the very small risks are worth the benefits, then proceed with confidence.

Measure those risks against the benefits of developing independence.

Let’s talk about those benefits. Sarnecka points out that it’s hard to measure the benefits of independence through research. On the other hand, it’s easy to describe possible dangers. If a kid breaks their arm climbing a tree, it’s tempting to assume that means climbing trees is just too dangerous. That’s how fear-based parenting works. But what about the physical and mental benefits of learning to climb a tree?

“Those of us who study development need to figure out how to quantify the benefits [of independence] to kids,” says Sarnecka. In the meantime, she recommends listening to expert child psychologists. For instance, Norwegian researcher Ellen Sandseter proposes the following list of things children need in order to develop independence:

  • Exploring heights. Kids need to get the “bird’s perspective,” going “high enough to evoke the sensation of fear.”
  • Handling tools. Let kids use sharp scissors or knives, or heavy hammers. At first, these tools seem unmanageable, but kids learn to master them in time.
  • Being near dangerous elements. Playing near vast bodies of water or close to a fire allows kids to be aware that there is danger nearby. Then they can learn to avoid those dangers.
  • Rough-and-tumble play. Wrestling and play fighting help kids learn to negotiate aggression and cooperation.
  • Speed. Let kids experience cycling or other activities at a pace that feels too fast.
  • Exploring on their own. Sandseter feels this is the most important of all for development.

Every item on this list arouses understandable fear in parents. But if you let fear-based parenting rule, your kids will miss out on important developmental opportunities.

Think about things you were able to do on your own as a kid.

This last idea is so simple and so powerful. Think back to your own childhood. What did you do on your own? Climb trees? Ride bikes with your friends? Hike in the woods? Play in creeks? All of these activities carried some risk of danger. Maybe you even got hurt. But you’re here today to tell the tale, and that’s what matters. So, forget the most recent episode of “CSI: Sex Trafficking Unit” or whatever you’ve been watching. Draw on your own experiences and give your kids some freedom.

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