Raising Risk Takers in a Risk-Averse Culture

I worry, these days, that we are creating risk-averse kids.

We live in extraordinary times. Times in which minimizing risk is not only encouraged, but expected — and many of us think that if we can eliminate enough risk, we will finally feel safe. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for safety precautions (masks! vaccines! distancing!) in this COVID season. However, I worry that given our cultural leaning toward helicopter parenting — and our misguided sense that we’ll be safe if we can just control more things —  we are instilling in our children the idea that all risk is bad.

True, some risks are bad — COVID parties, for example. Letting my 8-year-old drive our car in downtown Boston — also a bad idea. But some of the best moments in my life have come from taking good risks. Answering honestly when a friend asked me how I was doing, not just saying “I’m fine.” Moving to Boston when I knew no one here. Asking a mentor for a job that hadn’t been created yet. Cliff jumping in Hawaii. Trying out for a team I didn’t make. Talking to a stranger and then grabbing coffee even though we didn’t know each other at all. Finding my mom tribe.

Risks teach us how to push through our fears and discover what we are capable of. Risks expand our horizons, show us phenomenal views, and sometimes help get us unstuck when we feel trapped. Comfort in taking on healthy risks (i.e., situations outside of our control) is necessary for life. Despite our best efforts, we will never be able to control everything — and teaching our kids to expect control does not set them up to thrive in real life.

So how do we raise (healthy) risk takers — in a risk-averse climate?

Break the idea that all risk is bad.

Think back on your own life to risks you have taken that have been life changing. Remind yourself of all the good reasons to allow your child to be brave and try new things without you risk-proofing it for them.

Allow reasonable risks (think “safer” not “risk free”).

A risk-free life feels stifling and exhausting — and it’s actually impossible to pull off. Instead, ask yourself how you can make something safer while still letting your child try what is new and potentially risky. I have a very clear memory of going ice skating when I was little and watching a mom teach her child not how to stand on the narrow blades but how to fall down safely, so as not to break her wrists or potentially worse. The mom knew falling was an inevitable part of learning how to skate, so she taught her daughter how to take on that risk in a safer way.  

Don’t say, “Be careful!” (Try “Let’s think that through.”)

Teach your kids, from a young age, to assess how to handle things that are unknown to them. “Be careful” is an easy phrase to adopt — but what does it actually mean? How do they do that? Teach your kids instead to think through the risks and decide for themselves how to handle them. My child wants to climb a tall tower — fantastic. Together, we’d think through what skills she needs to show she can do it safely. 

Celebrate failures as well as successes.

Risks are not just physical, although sometimes it feels that way with small children. When your child takes a risk to reach out to a new friend or to try a new skill — and it fails — it matters that we celebrate the risk taken and debrief the experience. Failures become less consequential when they become less scary. And sometimes the lessons learned through failure are far more valuable than the things we learn through success. Normalize failure — maybe even share (appropriately) some of your own failures and what you learned from them.

Give them a chance to figure things out before you intervene.

Practice physically waiting before rushing in to solve your kids’ problems. Allow them to wrestle with it — and only help if they actually need your assistance. Ask, “What do you think we should do?” rather than proffering solutions. Children are incredibly creative when we give them the opportunity. As moms, we know our children’s cries when it’s a true emergency. But when it’s not a true emergency, I find it helpful to walk slowly over rather than run. This gives them time to figure it out themselves, helps me not overreact, and communicates confidence to them that I believe they can handle it!

Even though a lot of our lives right now are about risk elimination, let’s strive to raise kids who are not afraid of taking healthy risks and trying new things!

Kristen is Southern by birth but has called Boston home for more than a decade. Unlike most Boston natives, she still really loves the snow and cold. She and her husband have two energetic and kind sons (2013, 2014) and a sassy, smart baby girl (2016) who doesn't have a volume knob and is the bruiser of the bunch. Now home full time with the kids, Kristen jokes that she has a master's degree in laundry and a PhD in preschool conflict resolution — which she uses far more than her actual physics and politics degrees. In her "spare" time, she runs her own business (Murph&Moose), which helps her retain some semblance of her own identity in the midst of motherhood. Her passion is seeing moms feel comfortable in their own skin and less alone in the chaos that is motherhood. Loves: writing, science, languages, coffee by the vat, distance running, a good Malbec, time with her girlfriends, and the rare moments of silence when all three children are (finally) in bed Dislikes: daylight saving time, non-washable markers, and noisy neighbors who disrupt her rare moments of silence

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