Raising a Risk-Taker

Raising a Risk-Taker

The phrase “risk-taking,” more often than not, tends to have a negative connotation attached to it. It signals the probability of experiencing harm or danger, or risk which involves failure for the individual. Needless to say, as a parent, we often find ourselves dealing with risky behaviors, no matter what age or stage our children may be at. Common instances include:

  • A toddler learning to take their first bold steps
  • A three-year-old pulling themselves up onto the top of the kitchen counter in order to get something that they want
  • A young child who wants to drift further away toward the deeper end of the swimming pool (without even knowing how to swim!)
  • A middle-aged child who wants to bike many blocks away from their home with their friends   

With these and many other similar instances from our children's daily lives, there is inevitably a certain level of risk involved. And, most likely than not, our nurturing instinct causes us to shield our children from taking these risks, freeing them of the likely bruises and bumps that they may experience in the process.

As with anything, risk-taking lies on a continuum and can thus include both unsafe as well as beneficial activities. Come to think of it, we all seek risk in order to grow and better understand ourselves and our capabilities. Hence, when it comes to our children, it shouldn't be any different.

According to Nancy Eppler-Wolff, a clinical psychologist and co-author of Raising Children Who Soar: A Guide to Healthy Risk-Taking in an Uncertain World, taking risks is essential for promoting holistic growth and development in children. And, since parents are the main caregivers, they play a significant role in shaping children’s environments and, thus, their exposure to other factors that influence their overall development.

Impediments to Risk-Taking 

Before we go on to explore the benefits of risk-taking, it is important to understand what actually inhibits risk-taking in children.

1.  Reluctant based on our own fears 

When it comes to letting our children explore and/or engage in any sort of risky play or activity, our first instinct is likely to be natural hesitation. Though it may be for a genuine cause in some cases, if we reflect on our judgment, we will come to realize that it is due to our own personal experiences and the build-up of our own fears that we impose restrictions onto our children, as well. At this point, parents need to remind themselves to put aside their own fears and let their children carry on.

Secondly, another factor that contributes towards parents being risk-averse is parental peer pressure. For instance, even though a couple may personally not have any reservations in letting their child cycle to school, they may back out from their own decision when they realize that other parents do not allow their children to do the same. In such instances, it is important that we weigh out the risks and do not alter our own decisions based on others' preferences. We should try and find the best fit between what our own child is potentially capable of and the benefit they will gain from that exposure.  

2.  Reluctance based on our child's personality

Some children by nature are shy, fearful, or reluctant toward taking risks. In such cases, instead of being forceful, parents should try and encourage the child gently. It is important to remember that every child is unique and parents must not make comparisons between their child and others who are capable of partaking in that risk.

It might take a couple of attempts to encourage your child to try out something new on their own. In the meantime, you must offer them your support and provide them with necessary reassurances and safety tips. It might help if you can help them get out of their comfort zone by taking that risk together, until they are confident to try it out on their own.

3.  Based on unrealistic expectations. 

This has to do with the concept of perfectionism. Sometimes, parents hold unrealistic expectations of their children from an early age, which only reinforces the concept of not making mistakes.

For example, children who are afraid to speak up or raise their hand to answer, risk the fear of giving a wrong answer. It is the same children, who avoid participating in any activity which they think they might fail at, simply because they give in to their fear of failure.

As parents, we need to be watchful of what expectations we are holding from our children, given their age. It is also necessary to remind ourselves to learn to overlook our children’s mistakes, especially ones that are not a cause for concern in any way. At the same time, we also need to normalize the concept of making mistakes, by making it a practice to highlight our own mistakes and the learning that we gain out of them. 

Benefits of Risk-Taking 

While we may agree on factors that can inhibit a child's ability to take risks, it is also important to understand why risk-taking is so important for the overall growth and development of children, with special emphasis on their early years. Let’s take a look at the benefits of risk-taking in three particular areas of development: personal, physical, and social-emotional development.

1.  Personal Development 

This has more to do with the outcome or achievement of doing a particular task. 

Greater self-efficacy: When a child puts themselves at a risk, and are able to perform well, they experience a sense of accomplishment and pride. For instance, a child who puts herself at the risk of not making it to the top-ten finalists for an International Art Competition, will feel exhilarated when she learns that her name has made it to the final list of candidates. This will not only boost her self-confidence but also allow her to believe in her strengths.

A better sense of judgment: This typically arises through failure. For instance, when a toddler misses a step and falls down, they realize that they need to keep going in order to reach the next object or the destination that they are aiming for.    

Persistence and resilience: When a child recognizes that every bit of their effort counts, they develop a sense of resilience to cope through challenges. And, by practicing their skills, they learn to persevere and weather the frustration of failure.

Despite the strong urge to hover over our kids, we must leave a margin for them to make their own mistakes and work through the discomfort, in order to learn.

2.  Physical Development. 

According to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are recommendations for maintaining certain levels of physical activity among children of varying age groups. These are:

Recommended Levels for Preschool-Aged Children (ages 3 through 5 years)

  • Preschool-aged children (ages 3 through 5 years) should be physically active throughout the day for growth and development.
  • Adult caregivers should encourage preschool-aged children to be active when they play.

Recommended Levels for School-Aged Children and Adolescents (ages 6 through 17 years)

  • Children and adolescents ages 6 through 17 years should do 60 minutes (1 hour) or more of moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity each day, including daily aerobic – and activities that strengthen bones (like running or jumping) – 3 days each week; and that build muscles (like climbing or doing push-ups) – 3 days each week.

When children are actively engaged in play which promotes taking risks such as balancing on a beam, sprinting, rock-climbing, running downhill, or dangling upside-down on the monkey bars, they are automatically testing their abilities and trying out new skills along the way. It helps them to build essential muscles and develop the strength to enhance their immunity. It also supports the healthy functioning of vital organs of the body such as the heart, lungs, kidney, etc.

3. Social and Emotional Development. 

Getting involved in risky play sometimes involves more than one child or maybe even a group of children. In such cases, children learn to navigate through their fears by way of observing others. For instance, a bunch of friends are waiting in a line to go down the tallest slide at a waterpark. There’s definitely risk involved and each child's self-assessment or judgment to undertake that risk is different. But, when they come together, one encourages the other in overcoming their fears.  

This kind of play benefits a child as it promotes healthy interaction and competition between children. It also allows for the development of creativity and problem-solving skills, as children come up with ideas or solutions to navigate through the obstacles and help each other out.  

With such contrasting benefits associated with risk-taking, it is time we reclaim the term and see it as a positive and indispensable part of our children’s growth, development and learning process. So the next time we feel the urge to react to a fall, bump or bruise, we must pause … breathe … adjust … and then adapt our response to the actions of our children, before changing our stance altogether. 

Umm Ahmed is an early childhood educator and writer who is passionate about seeking knowledge and passing it on to others. She and her husband are parents to three boys and are currently living in Abu Dhabi.

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