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Risk-Taking for Your Children: How Much is Enough?

Do your children take reasonable risks?

Some time ago, I wrote a post about a TED talk in which the speaker recommended that parents allow their children to engage in risky behavior, for example, play with fire, own a pocket knife, throw spears, take apart appliances, and drive a car. I agreed with his views though I also suggested that, because he wasn’t a parent, it was easy for him to say. In contrast, as parents, we all struggle with a fundamental question: How much risk for our children?

This question is one I ask myself often because I believe that parents these days are far too protective of their children. Many parents ‘bubble wrap’ their kids with the best of intentions to safeguard them from life’s dangers. I would argue , however, that these parents are actually doing their children a disservice by not allowing them to gain experiences that will build confidence and instill resilience that will be essential for success and happiness later in life.

This question arose in my mind over the weekend as my wife and I had some fun adventures with our two daughters (ages 8 and 6). Our girls rode their bikes, swam, and climbed high on play structures. At a more mundane level, we also hung around the house during which time they climbed up on the kitchen counters, cut vegetables with a sharp knife, and helped my wife cook dinner on the stove. Additionally, our daughters rode their scooters on the sidewalk in front of our house and went for a walk around the neighborhood by themselves. Next weekend, we’re going up to the mountains to ski.

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My question to you is: What do all of these activities have in common? The answer: they all entail some degree of risk with the potential for bad things to happen, whether physical injury or even death, or kidnapping.

Unfortunately, it seems that the current parental zeitgeist is one of worry and fear for our children that is far out of proportion to the actually dangers that are present in their lives. For example, thanks to our “if it bleeds, it leads” media preoccupation with tragedies involving children, we constantly hear about their kidnappings, abuse, illnesses, injuries, and death. Yet, the fact is that children are much safer now than they were two decades ago.

At the same time, parents often miss the real risks that their children are confronted with almost every day. For instance, if you really want to keep your children out of harm’s way and ensure their safety, you shouldn’t allow them in a car or a swimming pool given that these are two of the leading causes of accidental death among children.

This question of “How much risk for our children?” is influenced by a number of factors. First, your children’s personality plays a big role. Some kids are born to be risk takers while others are born to be risk averse. In the former case, you have to rein their risk taking in and, in the latter case, you need to encourage them to take risks.

Second, your personality is also important. If you are a risk taker, you will probably send the messages that risks are okay to your children in several ways. You’ll model risk taking and, if they see you taking risks, they’ll be more likely to take risks as well. Also, as a risk taker, you will probably actively encourage your kids to take risks or offer them support when they are deciding to take a risk. Additionally, when they do take risks, you will likely respond positively, thus reinforcing their risk taking.

In contrast, if you are risk averse, a worrier, or fearful, you’ll send a very different message. You will communicate to your children that risks are to be avoided. Because you won’t take risks, they will not become comfortable taking risks. You will probably actively discourage your children from taking risks and, when they do, you will likely overreact with strong expressions of anxiety.

If you are highly risk averse, I would urge you to do everything you can to not pass this attribute on to your children. It is much better for them to decide for themselves, based on their inborn temperament around risk and their own experiences, what kind of relationship they want to have with risk, instead of adopting your negative relationship with risk.

Beyond the influence of personality (yours and theirs) on your children’s risk taking, you will also include in your calculations the values you hold about your children in terms of their exploring their limits and taking risks. You may believe deeply in the value of risk taking or you may value comfort and safety more. There is no right or wrong answer here, just what you believe is more important.

Still further, we parents engage in a calculus of risk every day in which we weigh the rewards and dangers of many of our children’s activities. We ask ourselves, “Should we allow our children to do _____?” How we answer this question has a far greater impact than you may realize because the experiences that your children have (or don’t have) shape who they become and what they do.

One thing we consider are the benefits gained from the risks. The plusses may be psychological (e.g., more confidence), social (e.g., more assertiveness), academic (e.g., better grades), physical (e.g., increased strength), or competitive (e.g., more wins). The risks may also not have an immediate payoff, but are valuable “money in the bank” that will provide your children with benefits from accumulated experience as they develop.

Admittedly, the advantages are probably not what first come to mind when “doing the math” about whether your children should engage in potentially risky behavior. Though we may be evolved creatures thanks to our highly developed cerebral cortex, the reality is that we are still driven by the basic instincts of our primitive ancestors, the most powerful of which is survival for ourselves and our offspring. This instinct is the reflective response we parents experience when we see our children in any kind of perceived danger, whether physical or emotional. And what’s our natural reaction? To protect them, of course.

That instinctive response worked well to ensure our progenies’ survival when we were cave people because there were many genuine threats to their lives. But it’s probably overkill in the 21st century where the dangers are comparatively mild. Putting that cerebral cortex of ours to work then, we can consider two aspects of the risks our children might confront. First, we evaluate the severity of the consequences. In other words, what’s the worst thing that can happen?

If the risky behavior involves, for example, your children running down a mountain trail and the worst case scenario is a skinned knee, then you may decide that the benefits (e.g., the thrill of it and the confidence gained) outweigh the potential minor physical harm.

Moving further along the continuum of consequences, if the behavior involves climbing a tree, then the risks (e.g., broken arm or leg) may begin to catch or outpace the benefits.

Arriving at the far end of that continuum, if the behavior involves jumping off a cliff on skis, then the risks (e.g., paralysis or death) will probably cause you to attempt to stop your children in their tracks.

But the severity of consequences isn’t the only thing you need to consider. Another key part of the equation is the probability of those consequences. My wife and I experience this aspect of the calculus every time we go biking with our girls. We want them to learn to ride safely on the streets, so we rarely have them ride on the sidewalk. Yet, every time they ride on the streets I experience mortal fear because it wouldn’t take much for a distracted or rushed driver to plow into and kill them.

The fact is though that cars hitting bicyclists are exceedingly rare statistically, so we exert control over our primitive instincts  and allow them to ride on the streets (under our ever-vigilant eyes, of course).

What results in the minds of all parents is a constant dance between the benefits and the severity and probability of harmful consequences. We look to strike the right balance that will enable our children to experience life fully, which means some risks, and protecting them from experiences in which the potential costs outweigh the potential benefits.

Unfortunately, there is no clear formula that I can give you ensuring that ideal balance between reasonable caution and appropriate risk. These calculations are very personal and based on, as I just discussed, your and your children’s personalities, your values, and how you weigh the rewards and consequences of potentially risky behavior.

Ultimately, this process is about encouraging your children to have robust experiences that will maximize the benefits and minimize the risks of life’s encounters. The culmination of these experiences is confident and capable children who develop their own personal calculus that enables them to live a life that is filled with enough risk to make their lives interesting and fulfilling.

Jim Taylor, Ph.D., teaches at the University of San Francisco.

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