When Is Risk-Taking Good?

When Is Risk-Taking Good?

I’m new to parenting – having just inherited two young children who are my partner’s.  And one thing I have found is that the constant concern about how to help these young people grow up into healthy, kind and self-sufficient adults can be all-encompassing.

Last week, we provided some insights from Angela Duckworth, author of Grit and Founder of Character Lab, and one of her tips was to allow your children to encounter some level of challenge and risk.

Risk is often when we experience the most growth – when we extend ourselves and our boundaries. We confront our fears and they cease to be fears anymore – thus it is an important part of growing up.

But exactly how much risk is healthy for young people? And how much independence do they need?

Let’s start by defining what we mean by taking risks.  There are three different kinds of risk; physical (think about the BMX Freestyle at the Olympics), social risks (which make us a better friend, family member or colleague) and character risks (which help us develop resilience and resourcefulness, as well as a responsibility for our place in the world).  We all encounter a constant stream of opportunities in each of these areas, and each is important in the development of confidence and autonomy.

When children are babies, many of the risks we need to take with them in order for them to develop independence are really risks for us – leaving them with someone else, letting them play on the bathroom floor when we have a shower etc.  But gradually it becomes our job to help assess risks that we encourage them to take and then teach them about assessing positive risks for themselves. This is where it gets challenging and when our own attitude to these risks will shape and colour how they see such risks in the future.

Here are some risks the expert suggest we should allow – and encourage children to have regularly.

  • Helping chores around the house (more frustrating for us, but important for them to learn)
  • Risk them losing something by not putting it away – important to learn respect for property as well as for others.
  • Taking a skill to the next level – by taking the training wheels off for example
  • Reaching out to other kids independently – at the park, at a party etc
  • Even applying for part-time jobs at 15 is a risk – you risk rejection, you risk learning new skills and having to speak to new people. But we all agree these risks are worth it.

Risk them being bored too -they will be more independent and better problem solvers if they can learn to entertain themselves sometimes and develop their own projects.  I got up one morning recently to find my two step-daughters – who had spent the night before watching YouTube videos of girls playing with their barbies – designing clothing and accessories for them from things in the kitchen – paper towels, little sultana boxes, ribbon from a present opened the night before….  These risks occur less often in the world of Netflix and the internet – and it is crucial that we offer opportunities for them to entertain themselves – and especially to entertain themselves without adult supervision outside (where appropriate) and certainly without screens – especially while we are learning remotely.

For these independent risks, it is important we model these behaviours ourselves too – and talk-aloud our thought processes.  We cannot be afraid to be vulnerable, as our vulnerabilities teach our children their feelings are ok.  We might be nervous about making friends at a new job, or starting a new class, and modelling that balance of anxiety and excitement can be a powerful strategy for building confident kids.

As they get older, some of the risks life may ask them to take may be more challenging.  They may question entering a relationship or becoming sexually active or choosing a specific pathway towards university – all of which are higher stakes than cooking your first meal in the kitchen!  If we have modelled good behaviours and thinking processes for our kids, they will be better equipped to make these decisions. Hopefully they will also see us as people who can give them solid advice as well.

I may be new to parenting, but there are a lot of similarities to the work I do in the classroom.

As teachers, we are always trying to encourage young people in our care to take risks – especially academic risks such as encouraging them to try a new structural element of essay writing or to solve an equation in a new way. They need to take risks to learn about how they learn best – to develop and try strategies that might work for them in terms of study and of personal organization.  So a healthy attitude towards risk and a willingness and excitement about new things helps young people be better learners too.

Leadership programs in schools are wonderful places to talk about risk and reward and what it takes to lead others – both formally and informally.  We encourage each young man and woman at St Margaret’s Berwick Grammar to develop in confidence and leadership, and mentors and key staff will know just what to suggest to extend their boundaries within the school community – to stand up and speak or play at assembly even if it makes them nervous, or to try out for a sport that they love, but know they aren’t the best at.  Or even to try something new, something out of their wheelhouse so to speak.  Our Pursuits program is a safe place to do that.

To really delve into this, you may need more than a single article, in which case I would recommend Daisy Turnbull’s recent publication, 50 Risks to Take with Your Kids as well as Judith Locke’s The Bonsai Child and Dr Arne Rubenstein’s Rites of Passage to continue the conversation and exploration.


Photo by Kate Holland from Pexels

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