In last week’s blog post, Parenting is Risky Business, I wrote about the dangers of using “risk” as a criterion for determining child neglect: risk is subjective, and parenting involves weighing and taking risks all the time. Of course, parents want to shield their children from harm. But in the past few decades, has this desire morphed into an obsessive drive to shield them from all risk – one which does far more harm than good?
Many American parents fear the risk of allowing their children too much freedom, but rarely consider the risk of giving them too little. There is a growing sense of “surplus safety;” that everything potentially dangerous must be avoided. However, it is impossible to truly avoid all danger, and the attempt to do so would lead to a dreary life.
Excessive avoidance of risk may even hinder a child’s development. The girl testing her limits on the monkey bars and the boy begging to explore his neighborhood out of his parent’s sight are not reckless children out for meaningless kicks (or to give their parents heart attacks). They are engaging in ‘risky play,’ activities that carry the possibility of physical injury or getting lost, which Norwegian evolutionary psychologist Ellen Beate Hansen Sandseter believes are developmentally necessary to combat debilitating phobias later in life.
The ‘non-associative model of fear acquisition’ suggests that people don’t develop phobias through exposure to or ‘association’ with scary situations or objects, like heights or snakes. Instead, infants are born with instinctive fears of situations that they are not physically or emotionally equipped to handle, such as the fears of strangers, dangerous animals, and the dark. As they grow, the exhilaration that comes from playful risk-taking allows them to confront and reprogram their reactions to these threats. Such play also allows children to rehearse handling the risks they may face as adults.
Children who are denied such opportunities to challenge themselves may have a higher incidence of mental illness as adults. According to Boston College psychologist Peter Gray, the sharp decline in opportunities for unstructured, unsupervised play, which often involves risky play, has contributed to an equally dramatic rise in anxiety, depression, narcissism, feeling of helplessness, and suicide among children, adolescents, and young adults.
Helping children learn to handle risk doesn’t mean tossing them out into the world to fend for themselves. Kids can develop the necessary skills gradually, by taking on progressively greater physical challenges or expanding the area in which they can roam without adults. Our kids started with unsupervised play in our front yard, and progressed to walks and bike rides around the block, to local stores, and to the library. (And up taller and taller trees).
We Americans once prided ourselves on our courage and willingness to take risks. Most of us descend from people who risked everything to leave their homelands and make a new life in this country. Every day, we decide which risks to take and which to avoid. By trying to avoid unlikely or minor threats, we may expose our children to far greater risks: The risk of growing up anxious, inept, or unable to take care of themselves. The risk of not developing resilience or the ability to judge the appropriateness of different kinds of behavior. What we risk most of all is raising children unprepared to meet the challenges essential to creating rich, rewarding lives; challenges Americans have proudly met for generations.
What do you think? Is it worth it to let kids take risks?