‘Risk’ is a word that few parents enjoy contemplating. After all, whether it’s realistic or not, we instinctively want to protect our kids from all forms of potential harm. However, while this type of parental care is nothing new, experts today worry that parents are becoming overly risk-averse. Changing social dynamics have left both, parents and their kids feeling generally fearful of the outside world, and this can have a detrimental effect on development.
Why Are We Becoming More Risk-Averse?
According to hard data, the world is safer now than it has ever been before. Deaths from war, disease, and famine have been steadily declining over the last century. Likewise, crime rates have gone down in most major metropolitan areas in North America over the last forty years. Why, then, do most people report feeling like the world is becoming increasingly perilous? Researchers believe there are a few different reasons why our perceptions aren’t aligning with reality:
- The advent of the internet. Being globally connected ensures that whenever something tragic happens—even on the other side of the world—we’re quickly made aware of it. Furthermore, social media gives us a very personal, “ground level” view of negative events. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it helps us empathize with people from very different backgrounds than ourselves. However, it can lead to parents and children developing the erroneous idea that the world is a very dangerous place.
- Privacy concerns. Digital devices have brought certain threats, like stalking, harassment, and inappropriate sexual contact, into the homes of preteens and young adults. While young people have always faced these risks, the insidious nature of digital communication makes them loom larger in the minds of parents.
- Disconnected communities. Urbanization and other cultural shifts have led to people living in relative isolation. Families are much more likely to live spread out across several cities today, rather than being clustered in one town. Neighbourhoods are also more disconnected than they once were. As such, parents no longer have the reassurance of knowing that relatives and other parents in the community are looking out for their children. This has contributed to a heightened fear of strangers. Parents now keep their children inside or very close to home, rather than allowing them to take small trips (e.g., to the store or the local park) on their own.
While many of the concerns parents have are valid, it’s important to realize that in order to grow as individuals, children need a balance. It is, of course, entirely appropriate to safeguard your child from serious physical or emotional harm. However, when parents become over-protective to the point of requiring their adolescent to check in every hour or completing their child’s homework for him (so that he’s protected from the possibility of failure), they prevent their children from becoming autonomous. Remember: Only by taking risks can kids learn to manage risk intelligently.
Identifying “Good” Risks
Risk is a fundamental part of life. Every time we apply for a job or reach out to someone new in the hope of striking up a friendship, we’re risking rejection. Every time we try a new hobby, take up a sport, or pursue a goal, some degree of physical or emotional risk is usually involved. What separates these risks from, for example, attempting to run across a busy roadway, is the fact that in these instances, the potential rewards of our actions outweigh the potential consequences. People who take good risks make better use of opportunities, express themselves more fully, and enjoy greater confidence and self-esteem. This is why teaching kids how to identify and manage risk is so important to ensuring that they thrive. To do the aforementioned, you’ll need to make use of the following parenting techniques:
- Let your child make his own mistakes. Parents need to learn how to draw the line between protecting their child from undeserved harm and allowing their child to “mess up” and experience the consequences of his actions. As a general rule, if your child is in direct danger of serious physical or emotional harm, you should intervene. If, on the other hand, the risk he’s facing is relatively moderate and guided by his own choices, you should provide support but allow him room to experiment. For example, if your child is being bullied, you should advocate for him. Conversely, if your child wants to make friends with a child you feel might be a “bad influence,” you should let him. If the other child really does have a poor character, your child will soon learn why such people are best avoided.
- Model excellent risk management skills. Children are hardwired to emulate their parents; this is their primary means of learning how to behave and navigate the world around them. Ergo, how intelligently your child handles risk will probably mirror how intelligently you manage risk. Think through your decisions and choose prudent (but not overly cautious) long-term planning over grasping for questionable short-term rewards. Unless your child has inherent impulse control issues, it’s likely that he will demonstrate the same patterns once he reaches maturity.
- Teach your child how to identify “good” risks. Like all skills, intelligent risk-taking must be taught and then practiced over time. Coach your child through the process of identifying and weighing up risks. Tell him that he should start by clarifying whether the risk he’s about to take is physical, emotional, or social. He should then weigh up the potential dangers and the potential rewards, deciding which is greater. Before proceeding, he’ll need to think through his course of action (how he plans to approach the risk and why). Finally, he should review his actions after he’s taken the risk, asking himself if there was something he ought to have done differently.
All children—from the highly impulsive to the overly cautious—benefit from taking measured risks. For impulsive kids, the “trial and error” involved in learning smart risk-taking leads to better problem-solving skills, an increased frustration tolerance, and a better ability to think before acting. For overly cautious kids, risk-taking is a path to becoming less inhibited and more confident. As a parent, it’s your job to give your child the space he needs to learn and grow, while also providing support and encouragement. If you can find the right balance, you’ll be rewarded by seeing your child grow into a vivacious, resilient adult.