As parents, we often try to “bubble wrap” our children in an effort to protect them from the bumps and bruises of life. Yet taking risks is impossible to avoid.
A toddler who takes her first step risks a fall. A third grader who raises his hand in class risks giving the wrong answer. A middle school student who auditions for a play may not make the cut.
If our children succeed, they’ll feel pride, exhilaration and a sense of accomplishment. If they fail, they’ll suffer pain, embarrassment or disappointment.
Either way, they will grow.
Taking risks is essential for development, 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.
The unique parenting book argues that risk has an upside.
Through everyday challenges, children learn the pleasure of success and the coping skills to weather the frustration of failure and persevere.
Even though we may feel the urge to hover over our kids, we must allow them to make their own mistakes and work through discomfort.
“We know from both the research and looking at this generation that has been so overprotected, it’s certainly detrimental,” says Eppler-Wolff. “If you can’t take risks, development is going to falter. You’ve got to get out of that place of comfort and complacency.”
Yet Eppler-Wolff says many parenting messages focus on helping children avoid unhealthy risks instead of encouraging bold action.
“Looking at positive or healthy risk taking is something that’s almost completely ignored,” she says.
That’s not to say you should let your children play with knives or fire. Or should you?
The point is to encourage opportunities that let your children rise to challenges and stretch themselves in ways that may be scary but offer life-changing rewards in the end.
“It’s very hard. As parents, we have to be aware of dangers. We have to know that there is, God forbid, the possibility there are some real dangers in this crazy world,” she says. “We need to talk to our spouses, our partners, and say, ‘OK, I’m comfortable allowing my child to take this risk.'”
1. Know your child
Start by assessing your child’s current risk profile. Is he fearful of going underwater, or does he attempt a front flip his first time on a diving board? If your child is a natural risk taker, your role might be to rein him in and help him weigh consequences without discouraging him. If your child is risk averse, you might need to offer extra encouragement or set up situations that test his boundaries.
2. Know yourself
Does your dream vacation entail flying out west for a mountain adventure, or are you afraid of flying? Have you ever said “no” to a job promotion because it would push you beyond your comfort zone, or are you constantly ready to greet the next challenge in life? Take some time for self-reflection on your own risk-taking bent. Either way, you’re likely to pass your attitudes on to your kids.
3. Know your fit
Once you’ve discerned your child’s risk-taking preferences as well as your own, see how you compare. If you are a risk taker and your child is not, you are likely to feel some disappointment or frustration over your child’s approach to situations. If you are risk averse but your child lives on the edge, you might tend toward unfounded worry. Having a clear understanding of how you interact will help you better handle risky situations in the future.
4. Don’t overreact
If your youngster’s face slips underwater in the baby pool, are you likely to freak out? If she climbs to the top of the jungle gym, do you audibly gasp and immediately tell her to be careful or come down? If so, you are likely passing your anxiety onto your child. Conversely, if you heap praise on her for the smallest achievements, she won’t be left to savor her own sense of hard-earned accomplishment. Overreacting positively or negatively to your child’s actions can influence her future risk-taking behaviors.
5. Weigh risks
Our first instinct as parents is to protect our children, but when facing a risk, it’s important to consider its potential payoff versus its real danger.
What is the true probability that something bad will happen? The worst possible outcome of letting your child walk to the corner store would be abduction, but what are the chances this will occur? Conversely, the top two causes of death among children are traffic accidents and drowning, yet few of us would think it was reasonable to keep our children out of cars or swimming pools. If the drawbacks of an activity outweigh its benefits, you may decide it’s not worth it – and then you’ve got an obligation to step in. But if the worst thing that can result is a skinned knee, it’s time to ease up.
“Treating your child with anxiety isn’t going to lessen the likelihood that something’s going to happen,” Eppler-Wolff says.
6. Look ahead
Our brains are malleable, so there’s always an opportunity to help your child challenge herself and try something new – even if she’s had a tendency to hang back in the past.
The jury’s still out on whether fostering healthy risk taking in young children will prevent unhealthy risk taking in the tween and teenage years, but it can’t hurt.
“It is our hope and experience that kids who in general take better risks tend to have an easier time in adolescence,” Eppler-Wolff says. “With each developmental step we, as parents, educators, doctors and coaches, need to encourage these risks.”
The good news is that it’s never too late to step out of our comfort zones, even if that means we, as parents, need to risk a little by letting go.
From building a fire to staying home alone, here are 10 risky things every child should do.
This post was originally published in 2014 and has been updated for 2017.
Art by Meredith Moike.