Teaching Our Children About Risk
This past winter I went hiking and sledding with a group of youth I was working with. The hike was sunny and enjoyable. Though the snow was deep, we plodded through to the top. The reward for such a hike was in the descent. We took an alternate route down. It was just a small path through the trees but it was quite steep. The goal of course was not to jump on a saucer and blast through the trees till you smashed into one, but rather to put your feet forward, slide and stop, slide and stop, and let gravity take you to the bottom as you weave in and out between the trees.
In other words, the descent involved risk and required some forethought.
These skills open up the door to ambition, entrepreneurship, and success.
Watching the youth navigate this section of the hike was truly an eye-opener for me. It was fascinating to watch how they confronted this element of risk. Some of them were very cautious – this was to be expected. A few of them followed my example and advice – a great idea. Then there were some teens who it appeared have not had much experience with risk before. One young man literally laid down on his saucer, head-first, arms tucked, and skyrocketed down the hill. I had to throw myself in front of him to take the force of the blow so as to save him from the very real possibility of smashing his head into a tree.
Needless to say, I had the wind knocked out of me, and after I regained my breath I spent the remainder of the day contemplating what I had witnessed. Honestly, I was taken completely off guard. I had assumed (wrongly) that at the age of 15 or 16, one would have the wherewithal to know how to assess risk.
The longer I thought about it, the more I came to realize that risk assessment is not something we suddenly acquire by reaching a certain age; rather, it is something that our parents and caregivers teach us throughout the course of our childhood, and they often do so unconsciously.
In order for a child to be able to independently assess risk and to handle it appropriately, they must be given the opportunity to engage in “risky” experiences. I’m not suggesting that parents should let their child go alone to a park in the middle of downtown Toronto. What I do mean is that parents ought to look for experiences where the risk is calculated, and allow their child to explore, assess, and experience that risk.
Climbing trees is a great example. In our family, our tree climbing rule is: if you climb up a tree, you must also get back down by yourself. There were times where I stood beside the tree for even 30 minutes while one of my children overcame their fear and figured out how to get out of the tree again. There was risk involved, but it was calculated. As the parent I was comfortable with the situation, and even though my child was not, they knew that I was there.
To give you another example, one year we were at the lake and my ten year old wanted to swim out to the dock. I didn't know if he could make it. It was risky and he wasn't too strong of a swimmer. Rather than saying absolutely not, I swam beside him as he swam to the dock on his own. And so the same rule was applied as with climbing trees: however far you choose to swim out, you have to be able to swim back. After my son successfully made it to the dock and played there for a while, he swam back to the shore.
It is important that we allow our children to engage in the level of risk that we are comfortable (and sometimes even a bit uncomfortable) with but give them the chance to assess it based on their capabilities and to engage it if they choose. The child may feel uncomfortable, nervous, or scared even, but if they are willing to give it a go, that is the recipe you are looking for! Further, (and as dad’s we’re good at this), encourage your children to push their limits bit by bit and learn to take risks. These skills open up the door to ambition, entrepreneurship, and success.
The ability to identify risk, assess it, and engage in it appropriately is a learned skill and one that is especially key when it comes to the safety and success of our youth. If that same boy from my sledding adventure were at a lewd party where everyone was drinking or taking drugs, how would he respond? Would he be able to identify the risk outside of the rush of passions, or would he slide headfirst into potential disaster?
We all desire the safety of our children.
But if we are ever to trust in their ability to be safe away from our watchful eyes, we must first help them develop these skills.
And when they do, the ride down the side of the mountain and through the trees will be a real blast!
Kenton E. Biffert
Kenton works at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom College as an adjunct professor and the Dean of Students. Together with his wife, they homeschool their 7 children (plus one on the way), explore the wilds of Ontario in the canoe, and read voraciously. To learn more about the art of fatherhood, visit Kenton's personal blog.