In my last two articles, we explored how efforts to keep children safe have undermined opportunities for kids to engage in risk and danger. As a result, they are being denied experience essential to developing confidence and good judgment.
In this article, we’ll look at healthy risk-taking activities that you can provide your child. For this purpose, we will explore risk by dividing it into two main categories: social risk and physical risk (or thrill seeking).
Social Risk—Meeting New People
Meeting new people comes with a certain amount of vulnerability. Kids can experience rejection or being made fun of. But being able to connect with others is a fundamental skill that is at the heart of what makes us human.
One of the problems with overscheduling in general and playdates in particular is that children have fewer spontaneous, serendipitous social experiences. I spent a lot of time wandering around my neighborhood as a kid. Sometimes I ended up just exploring on my own. Many times, though, I ended up finding other kids. Some of them I knew, some I didn’t. But those experiences were important for me to learn how to meet and get to know people and groups of people in different circumstances.
Some were wonderful experiences. One kid I met took me into the woods behind my house and showed me a fort that some other kids had built years before. I had a blast that day and went back to the fort many times after.
Some were not so great. I encountered bullies and kids who wanted to get into trouble. I had prized possessions broken and stolen. I experienced helplessness, anger and fear.
The fun experience rewarded my efforts to connect with others. The unpleasant experiences refined my judgment around the types of people I wanted to be around.
Social Risk—Exposure to Criticism
It is pretty easy to get hurt when expressing yourself to others. When you reveal yourself, you open yourself up to criticism that attacks who you are and how you feel.
Social confidence comes from engaging these fears and overcoming them. Public performance is a powerful tool to this end. Public speaking, acting and playing music for others are all examples. Performing for others, especially groups of people, can be very frightening. But each success and failure in this area can build confidence not just in performing, but in the general ability to connect with new people.
Social Risk—Exploring Unfamiliar Cultural Experiences
We humans are very tribal. We have a deeply engrained impulse towards connecting with people similar to us and fearing or rejecting those who are different. Crossing those boundaries of tribe and cultural can be uncomfortable. It can be daunting to consider connecting with someone who looks or sounds different than us, or who has a differing view of the world.
When kids explore different cultures, they become more comfortable and confident around people who are different than them.
Just as, if not more, important is that it can develop empathy that is stronger than tribal impulses. Society is getting increasingly fractured by tribalism. This is leading to growing distrust, anger and resentment for everyone, regardless of their tribe.
By giving your child new cultural experiences, you can help them break this cycle.
Physical Risk—Thrill of Going Solo
As mentioned earlier, kids just don’t go places on their own anymore. By the time I was eight years old, I was walking or riding my bicycle (with banana seat and blue sparkle paint!) the two miles to the local park by myself. Every day during the summer I would leave the house immediately after breakfast and arrive back home by dinner. In between, I tackled the killer slide of death, swam in the public pool, did stunts on my bike, built forts, dammed creeks, caught up with friends, hid from bullies and met lots of new kids. More often than not, my lunch came out of the pool vending machines. Sandwiches and chips were available, but there a lot of 3 Musketeers and Zero candy bars consumed during those summer days (I still don’t know what nougat is, but I sure liked it back then).
I learned a lot about being independent, making good choice (often from being able to make really bad ones and suffering the consequences) and what kind of people I wanted to be around.
Fewer and fewer children experience this kind of freedom anymore. And when they do, it often isn’t until they are teens and the consequences of mistakes are much higher. Kids should learn about risk long before the consequences include crashing a car, pregnancy or drug/alcohol addiction.
One of the challenges of allowing your child to go it alone is that people have been told for so long that it is too dangerous. As a result, parents are getting reported by well-intentioned people for neglecting their children. Parents are finding themselves in legal trouble for allowing their kids to go to playgrounds or roam their neighborhoods unsupervised.
I can’t say that I really know what to do about this phenomena. For now, when my wife and I discuss allowing our daughter more and more opportunities to go places alone, we also consider the perceptions of others so that we limit the potential hassles.
Physical Risk—Thrill of Height and Speed
Kids crave excitement. Climbing trees or the outside of a playscape (rather than using the ladder) can provide both a bird’s eye view and a greater sense of the possibility of falling. Pushing the limits on a bicycle, skateboard or scooter can offer a similar thrill.
Kids are hardwired to move into this kind of thrill seeking. But they are surprisingly good at gauging the risk, even if it does not look like it to an observing adult.
If you watch a group of kids climbing a tree, you will see them stratify across the branches. At the very top, you will find the older and more nimble kids, towards the bottom are the younger and less experienced climbers. And shouting from below with both feet firmly on the ground are the youngest and least skilled. Kids understand their limits. They constantly test them and thrill seeking is a way of doing this. But they rarely extend themselves too far. Instead, they tend to make incremental pushes at their comfort zone, hence the distinct self-segregation of the tree full of kids.
Physical Risk—Thrill of Novelty and Dangerous Elements
Part of “becoming an adult” is that we adopt patterns and habits (here is an article I wrote on habits). These are developed from our experiences and are designed to make life run more smoothly. But they can also make us uncomfortable with deviations from those patterns.
Not for kids. They love disruptions. Not too long ago, my wife and I were awakened by the sound of some neighborhood kids playing. We were already pretty tired, so it was frustrating to have our sleeping pattern broken. For us, we know that with both of us working and taking active roles as parents, when we get behind in sleep, it can take days or weeks to catch up.
But for our daughter, being awakened by the sound of children playing is exciting. She does not consider the consequence of losing sleep—she is excited about having adventures with new kids.
In addition to novelty, kids crave being around dangerous things. Fire, sharp tools and bodies of water can all be exciting to be around and interact with.
By the time our daughter was five, we were teaching her how to cook, including using a sharp knife for chopping vegetables, turning the stove off and on and using the oven. She was old enough to have experienced burns and cuts before, so she understood the potential danger of fire and knives. As a result, she was attentive to what she was doing and the instruction she received. But the danger also made her more deeply engaged. It was interesting and exciting!
Allowing Your Child to Take Positive Risks
We have been examining the two main types of risks for children, social and physical, along with some examples of each. This list is not complete (the risks kids can take are endless), but it should give you a pretty good understanding of the concepts.
Now let’s look at how you go about exposing your child to appropriate risk-taking experiences.
Step One—Know Your Child
Though children are hard-wired for adventure, the differences in their personalities, developmental progress and experience will impact how they respond to risk and danger. Consider who your child is. If they are inclined towards timidity, you may have to encourage them to experiment a bit. If your child is more aggressive, you might have to meter their behavior a bit.
The idea is to support your child learning a more balanced approach where risks are taken, but approached with a certain level of judgment. Encourage your child to step out of his or her comfort zone.
But do not push them, especially if it is an effort to share one of your adventures. This can really turn a kid off of the activity. Instead, allow your child to observe and participate at their own pace.
Step Two—Know Yourself
Letting your child do dangerous things can be very stressful. The first time we took my daughter to a large playground, she could just barely walk. She was excited by the new environment, but she was very unsteady as she tottered from one piece of equipment to another. The park was crowded with kids, most of whom were much older and bigger than she. Kids were running everywhere, often just barely missing her. I was surprised at how frightening it was and how much I wanted to yell at every kid on the playground to stay away from my daughter.
I accepted that I was freaking out a bit and kept my reactions in check. This allowed my daughter to explore, discover, challenge her physical abilities and learn more about falling down. She was learning playground physics and it was important for me to stay out of her way.
It is important not to let your own insecurities or anxieties limit your child’s experience. Evaluate if your concerns are rooted in your own fears or if they stem from a genuine threat to your child. If it is the former, then do the best you can to sit with the fear and allow your child to continue.
If it is the latter, consider if the risks are appropriate for your child. Can they understand the consequences of poor judgment?
Step Three—Teaching Your Child About Risk
As your child engages risk, give her or him increasing control. Confirm as you go that they understand the risks. The danger of a busy intersection to a three-year-old isn’t the cars. It is the child’s inability to comprehend the danger. They just do not have the experience or cognitive development to understand what would happen to them if they were hit by a car. It is inappropriate for such a child to engage in that risk because it is not possible for them to properly evaluate it and have good judgment.
But as your child gets older, you can evaluate their understanding of such risks and give them more control in engaging those risks.
Teach your child critical thinking around risk. Any risk should be evaluated for three things. The first is for your child to simply identify that an activity or behavior is risky. Next, your child should be able to recognize its potential consequences. Finally, your child should be able to describe how they can limit those consequences.
If your child is an experienced bicyclist, there should not be any risk from them riding back and forth on the sidewalk in front of your home. But if they are going to try doing stunts or ride to an unfamiliar place, the activity becomes much more risky. They should be able to recognize this and understand what the potential consequences could be (falling, getting lost, getting hit by a car). From this, they should be able to describe ways to mitigate those consequences (wearing a helmet and pads, taking a map or a phone, being extra vigilant at intersections).
Become a (Benignly) Neglectful Parent
Allowing your child to take risks is an important part of their development and is essential to them being able to make better choices. There are a lot of social signals to us parents that tell us we should protect our children from every danger and micromanage their lives towards being successful adults.
But kids thrive on chaos and danger. Moreover, they need it to learn about themselves and the world around them. By stepping back and allowing your child to take appropriate risks, you give them the chance to engage the world around them and experiment. The resulting failures and successes will teach them about themselves and others, while building their confidence and judgment.