I'm always trying to walk the line between being completely laissez-faire and being a helicopter parent. I love being laissez-faire and letting kids explore and figure things out by themselves, but I also have a very vivid imagination, and can always visualize what would happen if things went slightly wrong. That visualization usually ends up with a child screaming and a trip to the hospital. I try to remind myself those scenarios are unlikely, and continually repeat to myself "it'll be OK". However, serious childhood injuries do happen, and certain acts and situations do increase their likelihood. So, I came up with a few mental guidelines to keep me focused on the important things:
- Do not allow situations that could easily lead to fatalities.
- Do not allow situations that could easily lead to head trauma.
- Do not allow situations that could easily lead to loss of toes, fingers, eyes, arms, legs, etc.
- Do not allow situations that could easily lead to broken bones.
- Do not allow situations that could easily lead to disfiguring injuries.
- Do not allow situations that could easily lead to deep/large cuts and puncture wounds.
- Do not allow playing with dangerous things which could easily lead to any of the above.
Though the word "easily" is a bit subjective, I think I take a pretty moderate and common sense view: If a child is playing with a pitchfork, butcher knife, or other sharp/pointy/stabby tool or object in a situation likely to lead to injury, I stop the situation and tell her to put it down. But if a group of kids are swinging plastic bats/swords/etc around (as long as it's all mutually-desired play), I don't worry about it (too much), because even though it could cause a lot of pain and minor injuries, it will most likely not cause serious hospital-worthy ones. A child climbing a tree? It all depends on the child and the environment. If the child is older and/or the tree is over grass, no big issue. If the child is younger and/or there is concrete beneath it, I try to end that situation because a fall could easily lead to broken bones or head injury.
While making lists and thinking through these scenarios might seem a little neurotic (and it probably is), without this I'd be continually more worried (because I am neurotic), and that'd be bad: A good argument could be made that children need to get those bumps and bruises and scrapes to understand limits and consequences. So I encourage my daughter to wrestle with the neighbor boys in the yard, and when she gets hurt I don't try to baby her: I merely say "You're OK! Keep playing!" While it's always possible someone could break an arm or smash a face while wrestling, it probably won't happen, and it's even less likely that a more severe injury will result. The consequences of playing it too safe would probably be worse (in my opinion) and longer lasting.
It's a fine line: small injuries could help children learn limits and consequences (and "toughen them up"), but I consider a broken leg, arm, face, etc to be too steep of a learning curve. If it involves an expensive trip to the ER, or a summer spent in a cast, that's a lesson I'd rather be learned in a different way.
As far as regulating child interactions, I'm much more easygoing… just a few rules:
- Do not allow intentional injuring of any kind: fighting, hitting, kicking, choking, elbowing, biting, weapons, etc.
- Do not allow angry screaming or whining.
- Do not allow "injustice".
While kids certainly need to learn to deal with negative interactions with their peers all by themselves, it's our job as parents to help children understand what the correct behavior is in the first place. So, judiciously stepping in to stop a fight or preventing a bully from profiting from her bullying can be useful in teaching them that the behavior is unacceptable. That said, once all the children know the expected behavior, I try to let the kids attempt to resolve disputes themselves, and failing that, with coaching.
A small aside: I'm sure some people disagree with the "no fighting" part. I'm sure there are some fathers (and surely some mothers) who allow physical fighting; saying something like "Eh, it's natural and perfectly harmless to let the kids pummel that smaller kid until bloody! I don't want my boy to be a puss who's afraid to beat up on smaller kids!" Ok, that's hyperbolic, but, being a child once, I know that the kids who liked fighting were the bullies. If you, as a child, regularly got in fights and now have fond memories of those moments, you were probably a bully and didn't know it. Sure, if two kids want to "spar" in fun, no problem (within reason), but if only one of the kids wants it, that's just a beating. "Do not raise an asshole" is one of my primary parenting goals.
So, a simple summary:
- Do allow roughhousing and wrestling.
- Do allow plenty of bumps, scrapes, bruises, minor cuts and burns, etc.
- Do allow running, climbing, falling, playing, bugs, dirt, and mud.
- Don't allow death or permanent injury.
It'll be OK.