Adventure Parenting Risk Why Adventure?

10 Reasons to Stop Cotton Wool Parenting

10 Reasons to Stop Cotton Wool Parenting
Written by Stuart Wickes

10 Reasons to Stop Cotton Wool Parenting

You are a parent. Looking after kids is your job right? And to do that job well you have to protect them from danger. But are you one of those overprotective parents? Are you cotton wool parenting? I’m forever wondering whether I’ve got the balance right between protecting from genuine threats and giving the freedom to explore and experience the world and the risks that exist in it.

Icelandic Interior

Do your kids have the freedom to explore… or are you prone to be an overprotective parent?

The world’s a risky place, isn’t it?

It’s all too easy to list the evils of the modern world; aggressive traffic, stranger danger, bullying, drink, drugs, extreme weather. And look, even in my opening paragraph I’ve already assumed a world of risk ‘out there’. And the media does a pretty good job of bringing to our attention the nastiest things that can happen too, amplifying any sense of unease. To the point where it can easily feel irresponsible to let the kids walk to school, play in the woods, stay out after dark or talk to strangers. When I think about these things it just seems so natural to get out those kid sized puffy white cotton straightjackets. But at what cost?

I see childhood as a time for experimenting with the world, a time for play, for learning, for trial and error, for splashing about in society, dipping a toe into the outdoors, and trying out different character traits to see which suit. I’d rather like to see adulthood as that too, but that’s a different post. As a parent, I think it’s my duty to help my kids with all of this, and to guide them around the traps of modern life. But ‘guiding around’ is different to ‘avoiding at all costs’ – the latter, a sure fire recipe for becoming an overprotective parent.

Cycling in a Hailstorm, Dufton, Cumbria

This is not cotton wool but what’s the real risk in conditions like these?

But what does risk averse ‘cotton wool parenting’ teach?

I mean what do I implicitly teach them about the world if I let my parenting style be dominated by risk aversion? How does that help them explore and discover the big wide world they will eventually have to live in. Alone. Without me. Don’t kids need to experience risk and challenge and need to learn how to deal with it? And can they do that wrapped in cotton wool?

Although they may not make the news like a shooting or child abduction, there are equally compelling reasons for giving kids freedom, letting them out into the world to make mistakes and learn. So, in the interests of balance, as an antidote to the overprotective parenting impulse, and to remind myself of the importance of this, here’s ten reasons not to give into the urge to wrap kids up in the fluffy stuff. At least from time to time.

Dangeous Cliffs

What does a world full of warnings teach us about risk?

10 Reasons to Stop Being a Cotton Wool Parent

1) It teaches kids to make decisions for themselves

If you never expose your children to risk how will they learn to assess danger for themselves? If a toddler can trip or fall over an obstacle then they probably will. But next time in that situation they’ll negotiate a way over or around it or give it a miss. If you allow and encourage your child to assess how risky something is for themselves, you help them learn to make sensible judgements.

2) It helps develop their confidence

Making decisions, taking responsibility for your own actions and dealing with the consequences of those actions breeds confidence. Who doesn’t want confident children?

3) It encourages independence

Do you really want a teenager who can’t cross the road without you holding their hand? If you don’t let kids experience the world for themselves, it’s going to be terrifying later, for both of you! Teach them the ropes of any activity, tame or extreme, then let them get on with it. You’ll thank yourself in the end when you have independent kids who realise how much freedom you gave them compared to their friends.

4) Kids need fresh air and freedom to grow

Research suggests we are breeding a nation of Nintendo kids, more familiar with the screen than the sky. Is this what you really want? What happened to fresh air and the freedomto wander? Let them out on their own occasionally. Boot them out if you have to. They will come back again. When they’re hungry.

Pontoon party, Västra Silen, Sweden

Kids love a sense of freedom

5) It helps them make and live with their own choices

Imagine a life without choice. If you are cotton wool parenting then you are taking away their power and ability to make choices for themselves. You might as well lock them in their bedrooms until they reach 18. It’s not necessary to dive in and sort out every problem for them. A little well placed ‘benign neglect’ can require kids to make choices and deal with things for themselves.

6) It shows them you believe in them

If your children feel you believe in them, they will be happier, more go getting people. If your children don’t feel you believe in them, what do they learn?

Boy Crossing River Slovakia

Allowing kids to assess risk is not without risks

7) It gives you and them more freedom

Remember how great it felt when your parents sent you off out to play in the streets or picnic in the park, on your own? Why not offer some of thatjoy and freedom to your kids? Give them a watch, a phone and a time to come home. The first outing is the hardest, and then it gets easier.

8) Giving responsibility teaches responsibility

Responsible kids become responsible adults and responsible parents. The way you treat your kids shapes the way they will treat theirs. If you create cotton wool kids you may get generations of cotton wool grandchildren too.

Route Finding Slovakia

Giving kids responsibility teaches responsibility

9) It helps develop resilience

Children are resilient. They bounce when they fall out of bed. Scrapes, scratches and grazes heal. Why not send them up a tree or off to scale a mountain. Let them discover their resilience.

10) It provides the space we all need to explore, discover, learn and grow

Pessimism breeds Eeyores. Stop thinking negatively. Let them think they can have the moon on a stick and see where that takes them. They may settle for just the moon or just the stick or think both are ‘so last year.’ But at least you’ve shown them the possibilities. And life, in the end, is all about seeing the possibilities.

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How do you teach your kids about risk? We’d love to hear your comments below.

About the author

Stuart Wickes

Stuart's the adventure addict half of the team, always trying to persuade the family to get out, do more, go further. As co-founder and co-director he handles the business, creative, design, technical and publishing aspects of the project. He is our chief photographer and videographer. With training as a professional learning and development consultant. an engineer and musician, his contribution is eclectic and unpredictable!


  • I agree. Whilst the world is slightly different than when we were kids, it’s not changed that much. Mountains are still mountains.
    It is difficult knowing the balance though as a parent, and society tends to frown on things that are not the norm, regardless of being right or not.
    One thing we do is choose small relaxed campsites with a slightly wilder feel. At these places we can let the kids go off and explore. If they need some encouragement we ask them to find certain things (e.g. Find a pink stone, a brown feather, etc.). We set boundaries and try and let them get on with it.
    This year we are planning some wild camping. The kids will get to plan and lead aspects of the trip so they build their knowledge and experience.

  • @Karen Thanks

    @Gav It can be difficult knowing the balance, especially with the different cultural norms that seem to dominate today. In an oblique way I’ve just been writing about this in another post about Republic of The Moon, about how what may seem crazy to some is not madness but sanity.. sometimes we need to ‘ignore’ the naysayers and trust our intuition and judgment. Your wild campsites and wild camping sound great. One of my favourite experiences, although it’s hard to be stealthy with three kids! Thanks for commenting.

  • We need to raise a generation of self-disciplined, responsible, motivated and happy individuals and the only way to do that is to let them explore the world, learn how to learn and find out who they are for themselves.

  • We raise cattle, ride horses and quads, we walk in the wilderness and teach ourselves how to survive, to be safe and to thrive! We do tracking and understand watching the animals and the skies for warnings of danger. Being conscious of our environment lets us enjoy wonderful blessings of seeing 15 eagles or the baby jays playing, pulling a calf or watching frogs and snakes by the pond. Seeing a storm approach and knowing what to do! Great post thanks for sharing it!

  • GREAT article and you’re bang on! My kids are big now… two teenagers… and the nail biting nerves of letting them adventure and grow and become all of the things you outline have paid off in ways we’d never have imagined. KEEP GOING… it IS worth it!! (and your kids will thank you!)

  • I try to avoid the cotton wool with my nearly 2year old son and get a lot of comments that are negative. “don’t you realise he could hurt himself climbing …(whatever it is)” or “what if he falls/trips/pokes his eye out on a branch” yet my son seems to be very aware of his limits already and although not afraid to try new things, he will watch and assess first to see the best way to tackle the new adventure. And he very rarely hurts himself because he knows that if he is truly stuck we will help show him HOW to get out/down/up rather than ‘save’ him.

    This article is very inspirational and I hope we can continue to parent like this in spite of our occasional nerves and anxiety!

    Susie, New Zealand

  • I hadn’t heard the term “cotton wool” parent but it seems the same as our overprotective or “helicopter” parenting in America.

    I do my best to allow them to be independent, and when I have to overrule them based on safety I explain why.

    Great post!

  • It is all about balance and offering children the opportunities and risks which are appropriate for them at each stage of their development. I was harmed by being given too much freedom and responsibility at a very young age. I did however encourage my own children and now grandchildren to take risks and make decisions for themselves without seeing the world through rose tinted glasses.

    • Yes Jo, I agree, finding the balance is what it’s all about and that’s not necessarily an easy task. Our own attitudes to risk are influenced by our own upbringing and experiences, and on top of that it can be a struggle to figure out what’s right for this kid, at this age, with this personality and experience! Perhaps more important than any absolute decision is that encouragement to assess risks, take them and decide things for themselves. Thanks for commenting.

  • Your post (and your site) moved me. What I don’t think parents always understand is that older children appreciate how hard it is as a parent to let your children take risks, and they are very grateful when you let them try. At the age of (just) 17, never having been away from home by myself before, I announced to my mother that I was going to cross Russia and trek round South East Asia for 8 weeks. I saw her swallow, pause, and then she said brightly ‘Well, that sounds like an interesting trip’. I could see how hard it was for her not to object and I was deeply grateful. Now I have two children of my own, I hope that I can bring them up as self-reliant, confident and energetic people who can determine their own route in life without being dependent on me. Currently planning a walking LEJOG with family in tow…

    • Thanks Leonie, it’s useful to be reminded that kids have a view on this too, and if we ask and listen we may learn. Like you I want my kids to grow up self reliant, confident, energetic and independent and sometimes when they are it wrankles too. Your family LEJOG walk sounds interesting. We biked it, but I think biking is way easier. Always wondered how we’d get on with a big long distance walk. I like the simplicity of the idea. Be interested to hear how you get on.

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