Let Your Children Experience the Joy of…Risk?
Many of my childhood memories involve risks I took and the lessons I learned from those risks. Here are some of the lessons I learned: I can only climb so high into a tree before the branches become too weak to hold me; you can only go so fast on your bike on a gravel-covered turn; throwing rocks demands great caution; do not keep your acorn collection in the house; make sure people really hear and understand when you ask to destroy their favorite washtub to make a washtub bass; you get burned playing with fire; and seriously, you need to look both ways (several times) before crossing a street. I learned these lessons in response to risks, small risks and big risks. Some of these memories involve minor injuries. Others simply involved learning an important lesson before an injury even occurred. Either way, I grew and learned from the risk.
When I became a father (a risk well worth taking, I might add) I noticed risk-taking begins at a very early age, even before a child learns to walk! In many houses it begins with crawling and the desire to climb the stairs…and various pieces of furniture…or even visiting a relative. Of course, if we never risk falling, we would never learn to walk. Risk-taking does not end when we enter adulthood either. In fact, healthy risk-taking is an important aspect of a successful life. Hopefully, we have learned how to take wise risks, risks with a potential “pay-off” great enough to justify the risk, because of what we learned during our childhood experiences of risk.
It’s true; our ability to take wise risks is honed in childhood and adolescence, built on the foundation of minor risk-taking enjoyed throughout our growing years. Taking risks in childhood prepares us for the very real dangers of life. It teaches us what we can and cannot do, when to approach a situation with caution and when to leave well-enough alone until we have some help. Exposure to risk in childhood builds competence in decision-making and problem-solving. It leads us to develop a realistic judgment of our capabilities. By doing so, risk actually increases our ability to act safely and even avoid injury.
So, with all this benefit from risk-taking, why do we as parents jump in to protect our kids from every risk and challenge? I know we do not want them to get hurt, but some risk actually increases their ability to avoid injury in the future. Nothing teaches us the realistic limits of our body and a healthy respect for risk better than a few minor falls, skinned knees, and bruised egos. It is hard to watch our children sitting on the ground, holding a knee, and crying because they fell off their bike. But, the knee will heal and the crying will stop. The long-term lesson can last a lifetime. The lesson they gain from these experiences will depend on our response. We can let them sit with a friend while we walk the bike back to the car and pick them up after buying them a treat to help them “feel better”…and teach them that any action with the potential of temporary hurt is not worth the risk. Or, we can help them get back on the bike and finish the ride…teaching them that they can learn and grow by persevering through wise risks. To say this in a different way, we can let our response to risk communicate that our children need constant protection…or let our response communicate that they can make age-appropriate decisions over their lives. We can allow risk to teach our children how to cross the proverbial street of life carefully and safely…or we can prevent risk in their life and keep them from ever crossing the street, content to live on one side of the street and never experience the possible growth and adventure awaiting them on the other side. We can use risk to teach our children how to engage the unstructured situations of life boldly, alert to potential dangers as they pursue their dreams…or we can respond to risk in a way that leads them to internalize a feeling of vulnerability, a fear of stepping out and experiencing the immense opportunities of life. We can release them to learn how to address problems on their own, take control of their surroundings, and adapt to the unpredictable experiences of life through their experience of risk…or, we can protect them from risk and keep them dependent, constantly seeking safety, and avoiding the unfamiliar. It all depends on your response to the inevitable risk in their life. Which lesson will you risk?