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The risk-taker's advantage

Commonsense needs to be nurtured by giving kids responsibility early.

I'm afraid my neighbor's son merits the prize for worse party cover-up that I've ever seen. He's nineteen, which means he should have been old enough to know better than to host a party for 30 of his friends while his single parent mom was away for a short holiday. Wednesday night and it's midnight when I finally sigh and go onto my back deck and look two houses down from mine at a raucous bunch of drunken fools cursing each other and waving beer bottles. To tell you the truth, that didn't bother me. It was summer, and heck, I'd done the same thing at that age. They quieted down an hour later and I got some sleep.

The next morning, however, it became apparent that 30 friends had actually been many, many more and the lovely back deck and flower beds of my neighbor's home were trashed. Drunken young adults could be seen passed out on deck chairs as I walked down our back alley.

I shook my head and wondered if mom was going to make sure her son came up with the thousand dollars I knew it would cost to rebuild the deck's railings and repair the gardens. It wasn't to be. Instead, a little while later, a friend of the mother's was at my door asking if I'd had anything in my yard vandalized the night before. Seems the young man who hosted the party had called his mother on her cell and told her that a bunch of vandals had entered their yard, ripped apart their deck and then destroyed her lovely flowers. He was thinking about calling the police, but first wanted her advice.

Mom bought it. Or so it seemed.

"No vandals," I explained to the anxious woman at my door. She immediately looked confused. "But there was quite a party going last night when I looked out at midnight. I think I can guess who did the damage. Maybe mom should give me a call before involving the police. Or talk to her son again."

After she left and I closed my door, I shook my head and laughed. That young man sure wasn't taking responsibility for the mess he'd made. And foolishly, he was willing to go to great lengths to cover his mistake, even involving the police. Not a good idea!

What is it that makes some young people so incredibly irresponsible and unable to solve problems? Bad parties happen. Houses get damaged. But it's how a child solves these problems which is a measure of their ability to cope under stress. In my clinical practice with delinquent and anxious young people and their families, I meet parents who have trouble giving their children the risk-taker's advantage. I've written a lot about this in a book called Too Safe For Their Own Good: How Risk and Responsibility Help Teens Thrive [amazon 9780771087080]. We do our children no favors when we bubblewrap them, keeping from them difficult choices when they are still young enough to be guided by us.

My neighbor's son, I suspect, never hit a speed bump like he did that night. My neighbourhood is full of parents who don't let their children take risks, drive them to every soccer practice (and then stay and watch), never ask their children to cook, or walk themselves to school. These are children who are given cars at 16 but don't have to pay for even the insurance, with predictable outcomes (accidents, bodyshop repairs, and big hikes in insurance bills that the parents keep paying).
I want children to know earlier the consequences to their actions, and know too that they can fix their own messes. We parents need to think back to our own childhoods. When were we ready to take responsibility for ourselves? Even if that responsibility came too early, or was too much, consider for a moment what we learned.

We seem these days to have a magical notion that children can learn commonsense by just watching and listening to others talk about it. That just isn't the way our brains develop. We are experiential beings. Lev Vygotsky, a famous child psychologist from Russia, demonstrated very well what he calls "zones of proximal development." We need to be pushed, not too far, but just enough to learn something new. Good development occurs when we are invited to accept challenges that are just big enough to demand we work at solving them but that they don't completely defeat us.

My neighbor's son wasn't ready for the freedom he was handed. He hadn't solved enough mini-crises to handle a much bigger one. I suspect he has never had to stand up to his friends by himself and tell someone to leave his home when they weren't invited. And he has likely never had to pay for his own mistakes. Shame, really, because he is a nice boy. He just hasn't had enough risk or responsibility thrust on him. If we want kids to grow up and know how to cope we have an obligation as parents to provide them the opportunity to experiment while we're still there to support them.

I'd rather a child ride his bicycle on a busy street and learn how to respect traffic before he gets behind the wheel of a car. I'd rather a child do crazy stunts on the monkey bars at age four, and on his BMX bike at the extreme skateboard park when he is 14 (even if there is a risk of a broken bone) if it means he won't be doing stupid things with his body when he is 24 (like experimenting with excessive drugs or drinking). I'd rather an 8-year-old choose his own friends and suffer the consequences of being taken advantage of or emotionally hurt while his parents are still there to talk to with him about it, rather than waiting until he is an ill-prepared 18-year-old who arrives at a college dorm completely unprepared for the complex relationships he'll navigate as a new student.

A child who has the risk-takers advantage might still have invited too many friends to his party, but he would have known how to keep his mother's home in one piece and clean up his mess without skirting his responsibility. He would have told his mother what really happened (or at least most of it), and he would have offered to pay for the damage. That's a youth who is going to do well in life! That kind of young person can only develop if we parents provide him with nurturing that includes lots of reasonable risks and age appropriate responsibilities.