Encouraging risk-taking in your kids

March 14, 2019 | Posted in: Elementary, High School, Middle Years

I want my children to take more risks.

I don’t mean I want my daughter to steal a car or my son to run away and join a carnival. I am talking about the healthy risks that will allow them to grow into well-adjusted, successful adults.

Homo sapiens, like other primates, has an extraordinarily long juvenile period. We are born helpless and it takes years for individuals of our species to achieve even a small measure of self-sufficiency. Because of this, we are hardwired to be protective of our young.

But this is only part of the story.

Modern American society has had its own evolution, for better or worse. Children are spending less time outdoors and it’s rare to see them roam unsupervised. Researchers have cited many reasons for this including screentime and how high-profile child abductions in the 1980s inspired TV shows and movies. Even though there is a specter of kidnapping that looms over society, actual child abductions that involve strangers are extremely rare. But a parent might get a visit from Child Protective Services if their child rides public transportation alone or takes their dog for a walk.

Our increasingly litigious society has also caused institutions to limit their exposure to risks. Playground equipment has gotten “safer.” The teeter-totters and merry-go-rounds of childhoods past are disappearing.

Besides our individual and collective drive to protect our young, humans also have something else going for us – we are the planet’s ultimate learners. Throughout our evolution, failure and risk have been some of our best teachers. When we think of risk, we might think about jumping off a cliff into a swimming hole or climbing a tree. But risk can also be tied to a social challenge.

The Benefits of Risk

This TimberNook blog post on childhood development has a great breakdown of the benefits of risk taking. But to summarize, reasonable risks help children develop physically, socially and emotionally because they instill confidence, independent thinking, motor skills and perception.

A child learning how to ride a bike is taking a risk. They could fall and suffer a painful scrape. But a child who leaves their circle of friends to sit in the cafeteria with the new kid in school is also taking a risk. They could be ostracized by their current friends. Both actions may be risky, but they offer the reward of growth.

Failure and risk are great teachers, but Dr. Jim Taylor, a psychologist who specializes in sports and parenting, points out in a Pyschology Today article that children also learn by modeling behavior. Parents who are risk takers will often see their children model their own approach to risk after them. The same goes for parents who are risk averse, as they will likely discourage children from taking risks or overreact when they do, according to Taylor, who has been a consultant to the United States and Japanese Ski Teams, the United States Tennis Association, and USA Triathlon.

I spoke with Taylor recently to get his thoughts on how, as a society, we got here and what parents and schools can do to encourage healthy risk taking.

“Parents in particular have the perception that their kids are being raised in a much more dangerous world than 50 years ago,” Taylor said.

When parents think about risk, they often envision drugs, alcohol and fast driving, but they have lost sight of the value of the essential importance of risk taking on childhood development, according to Taylor.

“It’s really important for parents to understand the meaning of risks in a day-to-day sense,” he said. “The issue of parents who are risk averse and passing that along to their children is a real concern.”

Taylor suggested that adults should be aware of their fears and how they may be transposed to their children. In the Psychology Today article he also offers a way for parents to gauge and judge risks.

This comment made me think of something said by one of the physical education teachers at Unadilla Valley Central School in the Southern Tier.

Bill Holdrege teaches swimming lessons during summer. Parents who do not know how to swim will often, inadvertently or overtly, pass their fear of water to their children. Swimming lessons are an attempt to break this cycle, potentially saving lives, Holdrege said.

While some schools are fortunate to have a swimming pool and offer swimming lessons, others do not have that option.

What else can schools do to encourage healthy risk taking?

“School is an incredible environment to encourage risk taking,” Taylor said, noting it is important to have educators thinking about the notion of risk in the positive sense and the benefits it accrues.

Taylor suggested that incorporating more public speaking in classrooms is a great way to get children out of comfort zones.

“Public speaking is one of the great fears in our society,” Taylor said.

Taylor said it’s also important for students to understand the wise words of Wayne Gretzky: “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.”

There is a great article at Edutopia that has some more classroom tips, including Failure Fridays.

The conclusion of many experts is that there has never been a safer time to be a kid in America. Smoking, binge drinking and teen pregnancy are at some of the lowest levels recorded. The child mortality rate is half of what it was in 1990.

That’s the good news.

But the bad news is stress, anxiety and mental health problems are huge issues for young people and major concerns for many school administrators. It really makes me wonder how much the phenomenon of bubble-wrapped kids and helicopter parenting has factored into this and how much of a solution encouraging healthy risk taking could be.

Because my kids are just 9 and 11, they may be safe from the risks of stealing cars and carnival barking for now. But this summer, I want to challenge my kids to be more adventures and myself to step back and let them.

Jake Palmateer is a public information specialist for Capital Region BOCES. He is a father of two. Their adventures include camping, hiking, metal detecting, painting, stargazing, reading, fishing, soccer, mowing the lawn and baking cupcakes.

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