The Importance of Risk
Why Your Child Needs to Try
When I was a kid—admittedly, a long time ago—I devoured every title in the “Nancy Drew” series about an intrepid teen detective who always got into tight spots, but managed to solve whatever mystery she’d stumbled upon. Her contemporaries, the Hardy Boys, did the same. When my son was 5, we discovered the Boxcar Children books, about a family of four orphans on the run from a mean grandfather who lived alone in an abandoned boxcar in the woods. My son loved these books, but he never ran away or tried to live in an abandoned boxcar, nor did I sneak out my bedroom window to solve mysteries.
The issue of children and risk-taking has been in the news a great deal recently. A Maryland family is under investigation for allowing their 10-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter to walk a mile home from a park without adult supervision. And Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s astonishing free-climb of Yosemite’s Dawn Wall has drawn criticism from parents who claim it will inspire kids and teens to take unnecessary risks. Seriously? Do we need to remove Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, the Boxcar Children, the Goosebumps series, and other thrill-inspiring literature from our library shelves, and place our kids in protective custody?
Not all risks involve dangling thousands of feet in the air or tracking criminals alone. It is a risk to try out for the soccer team, or to play in a game. It is risky to audition for honor band or choir. It’s risky to ride your bike home from school, to cross a busy street, or to climb to the very top of the jungle gym. And there are children out there who are actively discouraged by loving parents from doing any of these things. They might get hurt; their self-esteem might be damaged. They might break a limb or injure themselves. And it’s true: taking risks can lead to social, emotional, and physical injury. But that doesn’t change the reality that risk is not only unavoidable for children, it serves an important purpose.
Most of the parents I meet these days are risk-averse. They worry so much that their children will be hurt in some way that they work overtime to eliminate any threat to their child’s wellbeing. I know kids who aren’t allowed to walk to school, even though they’re only a block away. I know kids who can’t play in the front yard because they might be abducted, or visit a new friend’s house without an FBI background check on the parents. (Well, that might be a slight exaggeration, but you get my drift.) And with the best intentions in the world, parents sometimes discourage children from trying new things. After all, who wants to hold a crying child who wasn’t selected for the team or who fell short of a goal?
It’s important to recognize that children acquire confidence, problem-solving skills, and the ability to assess and trust their own competence by testing boundaries, physically, emotionally, and socially. It’s an important form of learning, and without it, children are in danger of losing their courage, avoiding new experiences, and isolating themselves from a world full of beauty, adventure, and yes, risks. They may never break an arm, but they may live with anxiety and doubt. Where would we be without history’s risk-takers, the explorers and pioneers who were willing to try something new—and whose moms and dads released their grip long enough to let them try?
The first time my 9-year-old son asked to ride his bike with his friends from our home to the grocery store, about a mile away, my first reaction was to say no. But I remembered how I grew up, packing a lunch and disappearing into the hills near our neighborhood, playing and building forts until the sun began to sink and the street lights came on. So instead, I took a deep breath, reviewed safety rules and his route with him, asked him to call me as soon as he got home, and said okay. And for 90 minutes, I sat staring at the phone on my desk. And he did call me, elated, sweaty, and the proud possessor of a new pack of baseball cards—and he’s been taking measured (and successful) risks ever since.
Overprotecting children only creates different risks for them. Open your grasp a bit, teach the necessary skills—and let go. Your child may discover how to fly.
| Posted by cheryl | Saturday, January 24, 2015|