Can my child take a tumble? Sure

My child at play has to learn to face risks that will help prepare him for life's challenges while staying safe

Be careful.

These two words are familiar to most parents, slipping from their lips as their offspring learn to ride a bicycle for the first time or decide to jump from the top of a playground structure.

My wife and I have said them countless times, including whenever our four-year-old decides the living-room sofa makes a good trampoline.

Or when he thinks deliberately crashing his skate scooter into the wall is a hoot.

Or when he jumps up and down in the shower, which he once tried to explain away as "exercising".

I could go on, but you get the idea.

(Despite all this, he is inexplicably still too scared to sleep in his own room. )

Wanting your children to be careful when playing or going about their day-to-day activities is completely normal.

After all, isn't our entire purpose as parents to protect our children and ensure no harm befalls them?

Who else is going to teach them to look both ways when crossing the road, not to run with scissors in hand and not to play with fire?

I still remember my son as a newborn, depending on my wife and me for his every need, from clothing to sustenance.

Even now, it's difficult not to think of him as a helpless infant, though he is able to do most things by himself. We don't want our children to have bruises or skinned knees, perhaps in part because these seem like reminders of our failings as parents.

But what if these injuries are exactly what they need to grow?

Research into early childhood education has shown that children become more resilient and creative when taking risks while playing.

Two weeks ago, The New York Times reported that schools in Britain are starting to include elements with a "reasonable" amount of risk in playgrounds, such as crates, mud pits, logs and tyre swings.

The move eschews a three-decade-long shift towards safe but sterile plastic play equipment aimed at keeping children safe.

Looking back on my younger days, there was definitely a lot of risk in the things I considered play.

A primary-school game was "bola rembat" - a Malay phrase that translates literally to hitting someone with a ball.

The unruly version of dodgeballinvolved running around throwing tennis balls at my friends, while at the same time trying to avoid them hitting my face.

I remember going on "expeditions" with a friend in the uncut patches of lallang behind the school, concocting make-believe adventures.

I also recall climbing into the large monsoon drain (now safely covered up) that was beside the school to catch guppies or just for kicks.

At one point, I built a makeshift playground - complete with a climbing structure and slide - out of old, probably rusty, office equipment in a forgotten corner of my primary school.

I had fun, but I know I would baulk if my son told me this was what he spent his free time doing.

But so many of my best memories from my childhood involved wandering around and being able to play freely.

How do I balance including that element of risk that will help prepare my child for the challenges of later life - as well as provide him with life-long memories - with the need to ensure he stays safe?

Perhaps it starts with slowly letting go of the reins.

So I won't yell if he decides to dive from the top of the sofa - as he sometimes does - because I know even if he gets hurt, he will get better.

And he'll be stronger for the experience.

I'll also try to be okay if he decides, one day, to make his own playground from discarded office furniture.

It didn't hurt me, after all.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 25, 2018, with the headline 'Can my child take a tumble? Sure'. Print Edition | Subscribe