You’re off to Great Places!
Today is your day,
Your mountain is waiting,
So….get on your way!   

Dr Seuss

More risky business
Difficulties, mistakes and challenges are a reality of everyone’s life, but they feature more prominently in a child’s life because of the nature of childhood. Children are supposed to try out new behaviors and have uncertain thoughts and feelings, they are supposed to make lots of mistakes, and grow and change. Those challenges may seem negligible, even trivial, from an adult perspective, but the skills and attitudes towards risk and reward that our children learn from their adventures will influence them, for good or ill, throughout their adult lives.

But risks can be frightening and difficult. And quite aside from the usual childhood challenges, this generation of children will worry about the wider world – the ubiquity of information and news sources (real and otherwise) means that even young children may worry about global issues such as terrorism, climate change and disease. There are also the (to an adult) mundane issues that may loom large for children. The Year 2 child who becomes anxious because he didn’t understand his homework, or the Year 5 child who, desperate to impress his friends, takes unnecessary risks in the skate park. Children may also experience stress as a result of the testing and streaming that is an increasing part of the educational year in the UK.

The danger of the bubble
With all this going on, it is natural to want to insulate our children from avoidable sources of harm or stress. But in doing so, we are in danger of insulating them from the very experiences that will teach them to cope with, and thrive on, challenges later in their lives.

We ferry them everywhere by car; insist that they wear a helmet before they so much as look at a bicycle; demand our teens check in every hour by phone; and get involved with their homework to the extent of almost doing it for them. It is natural to have anxieties, and to wish to protect our children from harm but, as with putting children in safety jackets in the woods, our actions in insulating our children from risk can be counterproductive. We can unwittingly prevent them from having the opportunity to learn from their mistakes, and teach them that they cannot be trusted: to be out alone; to operate a bicycle; even to do their own homework. In putting our children in a safety bubble, we risk teaching them some very harmful lessons about their own competence and resilience.

In addition, children look to adults for cues as to how to respond to risk. As an example, last week I was in the woods with a large group of children for one of our wild play holiday clubs. If you live in Wimbledon you will have noticed (even if you were indoors) that at about 3pm on Friday the hot weather broke with an almighty clap of thunder and then a biblical hailstorm. We were all caught in this and although there was no lightning (too high a risk, so we leave the woods immediately) it was a very powerful experience with loud noise, wind and a LOT of water coming down. Clearly, it was also a situation that very few of the children had ever experienced before, and they were all watching the adults in the party to see how we reacted. More than half of the group clearly expected us to leave the woods and seek shelter indoors straight away. We all had coats however, the wind dropped almost immediately, and there was no lightning after the first clap of thunder, so there was little risk other than that of getting wet. So we stayed out and played games in the rain. Within 30 minutes all the children were laughing and smiling again, and as the rain cleared and the sun came out a large group of them invented a game of jumping into the deepest pudle they could find, to make themselves even wetter. You can see that video on our Facebook page. Because the adults in the group weren’t dismayed by the rain, the children gained the confidence to experience it for themselves, and realised that it was not frightening. Had we hustled everyone up to the car park and then found a building to hide in, the children would have learned a very different lesson, as well as missing out on some fun.

Risk is inevitable in life, and as parents, we have a responsibility not only to understand its inevitability but also to recognize the value of taking risks, small and large. Susan Davis and Nancy Eppler-Wolff say, “Risk is part of development; thoughtful risk epitomizes the forward thrust of human growth and change. Risk-taking is a key developmental concept, and parents need to understand its significance as a teaching experience for children. Through parents’ modeling, nurturing and teaching good risk-taking skills, children will be better prepared to meet life’s challenges.”

Good risks
A ‘good’ risk is described as an action, activity or behaviour that, preceded by careful thought, involves a “leap” towards the edge of safety and danger. Risk taking, like other skills, needs to be learned and practised over time.

I talked about Davis and Eppler-Wolff’s four steps toward good risk taking in my last post (which is here). These are:

  • Identify the risk – physical, emotional, social or intellectual, or a combination of factors.
  • Stay aware of the potential dangers, and benefits, of moving forward or staying still.
  • Think through one’s actions.
  • Evaluate one’s actions afterwards.

Every child is different
I don’t need to say what we all know – that each of our children is unique. And this also applies to their capacity for risk. For some children, taking risks comes naturally; other children will be more considered, with a tendency to weigh options before action. As parents we are also unique in how we view our children and their behavior, and how we react to what they do. Over time, children develop a personality that is comprised of their temperaments, their experiences and their fit with us.
We know that experience affects the brain, and the brain affects experience, in what can be a benevolent or destructive feedback cycle. Early deprivation can limit cognitive and emotional potential; while positive experiences have the reverse effect. Children are born with temperamental tendencies and specific learning styles, and these will inevitably be modified over time through environmental input. By ‘environmental’ I do not just mean the situations that your child experiences but also (and perhaps most importantly) your attitudes towards their experiences.

A child with a more cautious temperament may be at an advantage when it comes to assessing ‘good’ risks; however, sometimes this child can have difficulty with actually taking the risk. A more gung-ho child may have difficulty with weighing risk and assessing what is a good and what a bad risk; but may have no difficulty in the action part – actually taking the risk. She must also practise good risk-taking: identifying problems and opportunities, thinking through and weighing options, and then evaluating success – or failure. This process in both children reinforces positive risk-taking behaviour.

The risk of risks
As parents we can help our children to develop into good risk takers. Risk is inevitable, and without learning the skills of good risk-taking, our children will be more apt to take impulsive and poor risks. Learning to take good risks early on prepares children to recognise and think through issues of safety and danger. They will have had experience in identifying challenge and risk. They are also better able to cope with failure because they have had small setbacks and experienced tolerating and learning from them. Our job as parents is not to inoculate our children against taking risks, but to guide them toward taking good risks.

There is of course, a risk, in taking risks: your child is more likely to suffer failure if you don’t do most of their homework for them; they may hurt themselves falling out of that apple tree you always forbid them to climb; they will most certainly suffer skinned knees, torn trousers, teacherly disapproval, embarrassment, cuts, bruises and maybe even broken bones.

But – and it is a big but – children and adolescents who can think for themselves, and act in the knowledge that they will accept the consequences of their actions, informed by the experience of doing just that – for good and bad – are empowered to develop into balanced, courageous and compassionate adults, able to cope and thrive with whatever life sends their way.
And isn’t that worth a few skinned knees?


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