On a recent late-autumn day in Draper, Utah, psychologist Lynn Johnson and his son Chris watched with delight as two of Johnson's young granddaughters flew across his yard on a zip line, the crisp air crackling with their excited laughter.
Emma Johnson, 4, rides her grandfather's zip line in Draper, Utah, on Nov. 7, 2016. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Emma, 4, and Lily, 7, were clearly enjoying an adventure that — in an increasingly feet-on-the-ground, don't-take-risks world — is probably not something many kids in their grade school have experienced. They are, with adult supervision, doing something that might be considered a bit scary.
Johnson believes his three children, now grown, each owe at least some of the fact they're all stable and successful adults to the risky endeavors with which he peppered their childhoods. He stopped coddling them to protect them from all potential hazard. Johnson believes taking chances — not foolish ones, but still real ones — enhances a child's problem-solving skills, builds resilience and boosts psychological and physical well-being.
Other experts say he's right. Parents who let fear that something bad will happen drive all their decisions — fears ranging from personal safety to not getting into the right school — end up with children who are timid, anxious and often become adults who are neither flexible nor capable. Children need to take some chances, make choices and learn to weigh risks in age-appropriate ways, they add.
When Johnson first became a parent a few decades ago, he was fearful. He and his wife had seen news stories about child abductions and he wanted above all to keep his kids safe. Around 1992, he saw research showing the advantages of cultivating optimism and decided that was the philosophy he would consciously embrace as a dad.
The thing is, it's hard to be optimistic and live fearfully simultaneously.
As he became more optimistic, he said, "I overcame my fear and I believe my children benefitted. I personally shifted my own attitude and with a risk-embracing parenting style, the children also shifted toward optimism."
Lily Johnson, 7, on the zip line at her grandfather Lynn Johnson's home in Draper, Utah, on Nov. 7, 2016. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Fearful parenting is not unexpected.
Sending one's child into the world, whether to daycare or college, is an adjustment for parents, said Linda Lucas, a licensed mental health counselor and assistant professor in the department of human services at Beacon College in Leesburg, Florida. "It represents letting go little by little. This process does not come without parental fears."
Two parenting attitudes form a crossroads of American childhood. Years ago, children roamed their neighborhoods, often playing with any kids they ran into, choosing many activities on the fly as ideas presented themselves. Nowadays, parenting often defaults to a take-no-chances approach of scheduled playdates and supervised visits to the neighborhood park, offering little room for children to grow by exploring, which can spill over into other aspects of their lives.
The American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy published a report by family therapist Lisa Pisha that notes children naturally have their own fears, which can be compounded when a parent is fearful. "Studies show that our acquisition of fears and their negative influence is determined by what our parents have modeled for us. We learn how to handle fear and what to be afraid of from our family."
The impacts the report notes include more time indoors, isolation, avoidance and depression, among others.
"Our generation of parents is riddled with fear. We're scared our kids won't make the honor roll; they'll get pregnant; they'll get abducted — you name it," said Tim Elmore, president and founder of Growing Leaders, a nonprofit that cultivates leadership qualities in youths.
"Even though research shows that 'stranger abduction' only represents 1/100th of 1 percent of all missing children, we fret like it happens in our town every day. School shootings scare us into keeping our kids close and in view at all times. Imagine the message this sends to our young: This world is evil. Don't take any risks. Never trust anyone," he said. "It's enough to produce the most anxious population of American teens to date."
Though they don't attempt a head-to-head comparison of generations, statistics back up Elmore's assertion. When the American College Health Association surveyed college students on more than 150 campuses in 2013, it found 84 percent felt overwhelmed by the tasks before them, 60 percent were "very sad," 57 percent were lonely, and 51 percent felt "overwhelming anxiety." One in 12 reported having considered suicide.
Meanwhile, a 2013 study in the Journal of Child and Family Studies found overprotective or helicopter parents thwart a child's "basic psychological need for autonomy and competence," resulting in more depression and lower life satisfaction levels. And a 2014 study from researchers at the University of Colorado–Boulder said that children with a "highly structured childhood" had "poorer self-directed executive function,” which those researchers defined in a written statement as "a measure of the ability to set and reach goals independently."
Fear in action
Carrie Aulenbacher's mom was one of the parents who discouraged any risk-taking. To hear the younger Erie, Pennsylvania, woman tell it, her mom — whom she emphasizes she loves very dearly — was afraid of everything and did her best to instill in her daughter awareness of the world's perils: Strangers molest. Cars hit kids. Unfamiliar food can poison you.
Aulenbacher, a working mom and romance writer, said her mother's many fears in her childhood continue to influence her own adult life to some degree. "It hurt me because I look at every opportunity as, 'Should I do this? Mom will be mad if I do,'" she said.
Aulenbacher worries about leaving her son with someone because her mom worried "everyone who is not her" might be abusive. "Being sure of who you leave your child with is a GOOD thing, but assuming everyone is out to molest your child is NOT good," said Aulenbacher, who tries to find her own healthy balance between helping her child grow and recognizing risk.
When he was little, therapist David Routt's dad worried that stacked boxes would fall over and harm his boys if they played in the basement. So he told them spiders were everywhere there and some spider bites kill. While he got the boys to stop playing in the basement, it's unlikely he anticipated the long-term impact his story had on his children.
"We had been carefree children up to that point and enjoyed our play times running around the basement, but that is all it took for (us) to be scared the rest of our lives of spiders. I had a terrible phobia for many years and had to use some drastic approaches to overcome it. Now I am a counselor and I can tell you that using these extreme ways of explaining reasons for caution are less than helpful. There are spiders that can kill you, but learning all the information necessary to make a rational choice about the risk, that is most beneficial," said Routt, who practices in Caldwell, Idaho.
"The same concept can be applied to other topics that involve caution, such as the risk of strangers," he said. "Telling a child that they shouldn't go up to strangers because they will get kidnapped and sold into child slavery is probably not the best option. Telling a child that some people are not nice to children and we need to get to know them before we give them our trust is much more helpful and will have much less damaging effects."
Take a calculated risk
Fears can be healthy and children should be encouraged — and helped — to develop what Lucas calls a "sense of knowing" when something could bring harm. But parents should balance risks, fears and over-protectiveness with the importance of encouraging children to be independent and show initiative. "If a parent is present in their children’s lives, he or she is the child’s guide — not their guard," she said. "If children grow up feeling confined, they are at risk to act out their parent’s greatest fears. Measured freedom is the best teacher."
She added, "Teaching your child healthy fears is the beginning of preventing risks, but scaring them, thinking that doing so will protect them, creates the risks (of developing) anxious children."
Elmore would like to see parents take a step back from fear. He suggests encouraging kids with wisdom, rather than motivating them with fear. "Simply offering logical wisdom for each decision completely reframes their attitude and stifles their inner fear. Let's be rational, not emotional."
Instead of refusing to let your kid walk to the mall for fear he'll be run over and killed, tell him to walk with his friends and to watch traffic, said Elmore. "Text me when you get there."
Lucas, too, sees great value in loosening the parental grip a little, for both parent and child. Children use parents and caregivers as models. What those adults value is reinforced, "even if it means a dysfunctional way of relieving their fears."
Parents can tackle realistic concerns head on and help their children by doing so. The AAMFT report notes, for example, that "spending more time talking with one another, developing your child's sense of self and confidence and understanding and being mindful of more potential dangers is much more effective at teaching safety than simply avoidance of strangers."
Johnson, who wrote a book called "Enjoy Life: Healing with Happiness," says science suggests genetics account for about half of one's tendency to optimism. It can be supplemented. "We buffer our genetics by our behavior, such as moderate risk taking. That seems to produce epigenetic changes in us." He also credits cultivating a sense of gratitude with helping reduce fears.
While she wishes her mom had been less fearful as a parent, Aulenbacher said she's grateful for how "she colors my world with unique insight, amazing knowledge of flora and fauna and has never once made me feel as if I'm no good. So I do what I can to assuage her fear out of love, the best that I know how."
Then she tries to parent fearlessly.