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Common mistake by parents harming Aussie kids: 'Really big problem'

Our children are no longer engaging in 'risky play' and are being 'smothered' by their parents, says education specialist Dr Elise Waghorn.

Aussie parents have become too soft and are "smothering" their kids, according to education specialist Dr Elise Waghorn, who says it's a "really big problem" that could have devastating consequences for our youngest citizens.

Long gone are the days when children "get dirty" or engage in "risky play". And this suffocating approach is "really starting to show", the early childhood development expert told Yahoo News Australia.

We see it most in playgrounds both at school and in our community with mums and dads now "fearful" of their kids "taking risks" while having fun. "Be careful", "that's not safe" and "don't do that" should be phrases we use infrequently, and only when necessary, according to Waghorn, but our kids are hearing these words far too often.

"Instead of saying, hop down, that's not safe or be careful, we should be changing the language we use with children and give them the space to think about and risk assess that situation themselves," Waghorn told Yahoo. "I think parents need to recognise it's important for them to be a safety net, so be there to step in when you need to, while still allowing your child to make those decisions on their own".

Four children hanging upside down on play equipment
Kids should be engaging in 'risky play' says education expert Dr Elise Waghorn. Source: Getty

Risk vs hazard: Know the difference

While she isn't encouraging "extreme" behaviour, like sending young kids out on their own, we should be "allowing them to explore, make friends and challenge their own abilities" — under a watchful eye. There's also a difference between a risk and a hazard, said the RMIT expert, and identifying this could be the difference between raising confident, independent children and not.

A hazard is "something that can cause significant harm" and should be avoided — such as a child playing on burning hot metal. "A risk on the other hand is when there's potential for an accident to happen, but the element of fun, engagement and learning far outweighs the risk," Waghorn explained. In this scenario, we should tell our kids to "go for it".

 New playground at Mofflin Park at Elizabeth Vale, Adelaide
A new playground at Mofflin Park at Elizabeth Vale, Adelaide has been labelled 'dangerous' by many parents. Source: Facebook

"As a society, we have increasingly become hesitant about the freedom or autonomy we give children to partake in play that involves an element of risk," Waghorn, whose research focuses on exploring the everyday life of children in Australia, explained. "However, the advantages of children taking calculated risks during their play far surpasses the potential for harm".

Why do kids need risky play?

Risky play encompasses various activities, including scaling heights and engaging in fast-paced endeavours such as biking, running, and sliding. Even getting lost in games like hide and seek and balancing on unstable rocks without holding on are both beneficial for our little ones.

Last week, after the opening of a new $4.6m playground in Adelaide, many parents took to social media and warned of stairs that were "far too big" and a "dangerous" slide "not suitable" for kids. But it's activities like climbing, jumping and running that "contribute to the development of essential gross motor and core muscle skills". It also enhances their mental health and overall wellbeing.

facebook post from parent warning against new park in Adelaide.
Many parents took to social media and warned of stairs or the slide being too 'dangerous' for kids. Source: Facebook

"These movement skills make children less likely to injure themselves and – for young children – help them to sit still for longer periods by building muscular support," Waghorn said. Preventing them from engaging in risky play could mean "they won't trust in their own abilities" and kids will "constantly look to their parents or their teachers for the answers as opposed to being confident enough to make the decisions themselves".

Limiting risky behaviour can also have a significant impact later in life. "We want children to have confidence in their own abilities and not feel like they need us for everything, because then we become a society where children can't think for themselves, which obviously can be a real big problem in peer pressure," the expert explained.

Social media to blame for shift in parenting

Waghorn advises parents to "stay away from social media", blaming it for the shift in parental behaviour. Seeing "all the bad stuff" that happens in our community is what she believes contributes to "fear" around our children's safety. What's more, it "doesn't help" in a society full of parents "constantly second-guessing" themselves.

"We've got crime pages, we've got people posting about things, and parents have become fearful. We became fearful of allowing our children to play outside or go to the park or take those risks," she explained. "And so the more we engage with these platforms, the less that we allow our children to do — and it's showing in so many ways".

Waghorn said parents need to "trust your own children and trust your own gut". "Allow children to take the risk themselves. Don't rely on social media to tell you because we all know that things can get blown out of proportion," she said.

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