When I came across this piece in the Guardian (Should I let my child take more risks?), I had already begun to think about the question of risk-taking for my own kid. There are plenty of reasons why kids should take part in active, sometimes risky, outdoor play (as this position paper also outlines): physical fitness, opportunities for socialization (!), learning self-control & body coordination, etc. And while I agree with all of these statements, I’m not quite ready to let my nearly 2-year old loose, alone in the woods just yet…
Plus, I’d like to add another dimension (albeit unscientific & un-researched) to this argument for risk-taking. I think it’s one of the best ways to foster caution, self-regulation and self-knowledge. What?! That sounds crazy! How can encouraging your kid to use a knife or climb up to reach something themselves teach them that?
Well, let’s look at it this way. How many times have you heard a parent say (or have said yourself) “Be Careful!”? It happens at the playground when your child is about to step on another kid’s fingers. It happens at home when they’re coming down the stairs by themselves. It happens when they pet the cat. It happens when they spin around and get dizzy. It happens when they’re running a little too fast down the sidewalk. Those words almost seem to have a mind of their own. They slip out of our mouths without us hardly noticing that they did. But to a young child, what do they actually mean? Hmm.
Instead of just saying those words, perhaps we should teach kids how to “take care.” Some of these lessons come directly from us and some of them come from their trials out in the ‘real world.’
From us: We can give them opportunities to dabble with “danger” in a safe environment. For instance, yesterday my daughter and I cut some eggplant for dinner. We both used serrated steak knives. Granted, she mostly ate raw eggplant and needed help cutting, but she had a knife. Ack! Before we began, I sat us both down at the kitchen table and had her touch the blade of the knife so that she could feel what “sharp” was. It was only our first experiment, but I think that she gained a little respect for knives from it. She was not eager to wield it wildly. She did not take it and run through the house with it. It did its job and that was it. She’s not going to be lucky enough to get a sharp knife with every meal, but it will make it’s appearance when it’s called for and we’ll continue letting her take that little risk.
Since we are preparing our kids for the real world, it’s important that we make their worlds as real as possible. There will be knives in the real world. There will be stairs. There will be stools to fall off of. There will be rejection. And there will be cats who might like to scratch. When we think our kids are ready, it’s important that we expose them to these realistic risks so that they can become familiar with them & get more comfortable dealing with them.
From the real world: Without us having to intervene, the world is already teaching our kids many things. If you fall down on the sidewalk, you’re likely going to skin your knee (and yet, we don’t all avoid sidewalks!). If you go outside without a coat when it’s cold, you too will be cold. If you climb up a rocky wall, you’re eventually going to have to climb down again. If you ask another kid to play with you, they might say no.
Letting kids experience the world (even in small bites like playgrounds) and push their physical and emotional limits is going to inform them of how much they can do on their own. They’re going to learn their own limitations and their own capabilities much more fully than if they are simply told what they can and can’t do without experiencing them. They will learn when they’re ready and able to climb to the next limb of the tree.
Limiting kids risk-taking experiences is only going to lead to recklessness or unnecessary fear: not understanding boundaries or viewing them as being everywhere. Caution and risk-taking, therefore, go hand in hand. I would also posit that it’s only kids who aren’t allowed to take risks or who are always rescued from them who don’t exhibit caution or self-regulation.
We can’t push them before they’re ready, but we also must not discourage them when they are. Encourage trying and emphasize that you’ll be there for a hug if they get hurt or are disappointed. But then allow them to take that risk again when they’re ready. It’ll be an endless exercise in vicarious risk-taking for us, the grown ups, who have already survived learning how to climb a tree.