This article is part of a series on this topic. If you would like to start at the beginning, click here.
Risk Taking Is Essential for Learning and Future Success
I was a pretty mediocre student growing up. I could understand most of the material, but did a poor job when it came to doing the work of learning (homework, studying, etc.). I was told I was gifted and just bored. I was also told I was hyperactive (now ADD/ADHD).
The reality was that I wasn’t actually special. I was undisciplined and insecure. I was told that I was intelligent and liked the idea of being brilliant. So, if I was confused in class, I never asked questions that might make me look dumb. Because I was undisciplined, I did not like doing any work that was hard. But more importantly, I was reluctant to do any work because I did not think someone as smart as me should have to.
My belief that I was special (super intelligent) was very comfortable for me. To step outside of that comfort zone would require me to risk discomfort and compromising my self-image.
It would have required some big risk-taking.
Learning requires engaging risk. In order to learn, one risks looking foolish or stupid in front of others. Or having beliefs or ideas undermined and proved wrong. Or simply dealing with inevitable failure that comes from trying to do things you haven’t yet mastered.
Additionally, being successful in life requires evaluating and taking on risk. Being in healthy relationships requires exposing oneself to vulnerability and hard work. Career success requires professional risks and making hard, long-term decisions that can have huge consequences. Managing one’s finances requires evaluating choices for their potential consequences and then taking calculated risks.
Being able to engage healthy risk taking is an essential skill for navigating uncertainty towards personal and professional success. It also has emotional benefits. Children and teens are increasingly anxious. There is evidence that a contributing factor to this anxiety is how children are increasingly insulated from risk taking and danger.
Some of this could be simply children absorbing their parents’ anxiety. If the world is a dangerous place (rather than a source of curiosity and adventure) from which they must be protected, how could they ever feel safe or confident?
But there is also research that learning from mistakes made when taking risks as a child can limit fear as an adult. In one study, children who, between the ages of five and nine years old, received severe injuries (broken bones, dislocations or lacerations) falling from heights were found to be less afraid of heights when they were eighteen years old.
This seems counter-intuitive, but kids who are more inclined (or simply have the opportunity) to play (and potentially get injured) at greater heights, tend to grow comfortable at such heights. They become inoculated to the fear.
Making Kids Safer With Incorrect Assumptions
In my last article, we explored how children’s lives have changed in recent decades due to the efforts of parents and authorities to improve their safety. Often, these efforts were trying to fix problems that were not there.
Playgrounds were made safer, but injuries taking kids to the emergency room have increased since those changes were put into place. Kids are being numbed to risk. If you fall down on running across a surface that is cushioned with wood chips or rubber matting, you do not get the feedback that tells you to be cautious about climbing.
The process by which children develop good judgement is being undermined by our efforts to keep them safe.
Another example is how children never go places alone anymore. Part of this is due to how their lives are micromanaged and overscheduled. Kids are shuttled from school to multiple after school activities. Instead of play time being unstructured and spontaneous, kids have playdates.
The number of hours parents work, especially moms, is up from when I was a kid. And so is the amount of time both parents spend with their children.
In addition to overscheduling and increased parental involvement, children are getting less and less opportunity to explore and take risks on their own because of fears around abduction and violence towards kids. The fear of Stranger Danger has fundamentally changed our society. As a result, a kid’s ability to go places alone is even more restricted.
And yet, there is no statistical data to support this fear. The chances of a child being abducted or harmed by an adult stranger is astronomically low, as has been the case for decades. In fact, the only big change in crimes against children comes from abduction by a family member. With divorce rates rising since the 70’s, a child is far more likely to be abducted by an estranged parent than a total stranger.
Keeping Kids Too Safe
Since I was a kid in the 70’s, parents have gotten increasingly involved in their kids’ lives. In a lot of ways, this is a great shift. Parents are able to offer deeper mentorship and support for their children’s development.
For many, parenting is viewed as a skill that can be developed and improved (supporting this approach is the whole mission of this blog). These parents work at better engaging their children at all levels to help them grow into happy, healthy adults.
But there are ways these efforts have gotten off track and have produced unintended consequences. Trying to keep kids safe from every threat (some real, many imagined or exaggerated), has compromised children developing the essential skill of risk assessment by engaging in risky, even dangerous activities.
Furthermore, trying to keep children safe in a world that is inherently risky is creating anxiety and denying them the confidence that comes from facing scary things.
So what are we supposed to do? As parents, we want to keep our children safe, but it seems they need risk and danger as well.
In my next article, we will explore different types of risk taking and look at strategies for offering your kid an appropriately dangerous childhood!