Risky Business

By Teacher Kerry

If you ask any parent or teacher to name the most important element of our jobs, there’s a good chance that we will say, “keeping children safe.”  This statement, while inarguable, also oversimplifies a really important aspect of helping young children grow to be healthy and confident adults.  Over the past decade or two, American children have been increasingly hedged around with restrictions, limitations, and a general “dumbing down” of the activities they are allowed, let alone encouraged, to try.  As Dr. Christine Gross-Loh  remarks in Parenting Without Borders (Avery, 2013)

Nothing in life is without risk, of course.  But the mentality that seems to prevail in the United States is that no level of risk should ever be acceptable, that’s it’s our job to make sure nothing ever happens (and our fault if anything does).  …Trying to eliminate all possible risk isn’t just stifling; without the right sense of proportion and reasonableness, an environment filled with rules gives a false sense of control. (p. 132)

We have systematically made our parks and playgrounds “safer,” by reducing the challenges and increasing the age and supervision requirements; we’ve surrounded children around with restrictions on where they may go, at what age and with whom, and we hover desperately over children to prevent any chance of failure, disappointment, or social rejection.  In this furious pursuit of perfect safety, we’re increasingly losing track of our ultimate goal, which is an adult who can assess a situation with confidence, shows a strong and informed understanding of his/her own abilities and skills, and competently balance risk and reward.  Ellen Hansen Sandseter, a psychologist at Queen Maud University College in central Norway, has been conducting research in Norwegian, Australian and English playgrounds and schools for thirteen years, observing and interviewing parents, teachers, and children.  She points out that what is truly dangerous is the fifteen- or sixteen-year-old who, far from having incrementally practiced these skills over the years, has instead been surrounded by adults who directed him or constantly reminded her of what was or was not safe.  “That’s when kids really are at risk,” Sandseter warned.  “Allowing children to handle risks on their own with their own bodies, their own minds and through their own assessment and courage, is the most important safety protection you can give a child.

In the last couple of years, there has been something of a movement to go back to a more “free-range” idea of childhood, allowing children greater autonomy and independence.  I think this is far overdue.  As a four-year-old in the 1960’s, I walked to and from kindergarten alone every day after the first week of school.  When my daughter was four, I didn’t allow her so much as to walk around the block alone, let alone cross streets.  The amount of free, unsupervised outdoor play children get has decreased sharply, and the very real risks of obesity, impaired judgment, reduced autonomy and inadequate self-reliance have gone up.  The less children play independently, the more their self-regulation has decreased—according to Gross-Loh, an American five-year-old today is only as self-regulated as a three-year-old child in the 1940’s.  

As a teacher, I struggle with my own urge to over-protect and over-restrict children, especially outdoors.  I cringe at how frequently I hear myself saying, “That scares me…slow down…be careful…don’t do that.”  I know that if I really want to do the best thing for the little students in my care, I need to step back and trust them more, encourage them to make their own assessments of risk and reward.  I take Teacher Tom as my role model.  When a child is contemplating a potentially risky activity, Tom will say "I'm going to watch to see who gets hurt so I know who I'm going to take care of while they're crying." To which the reply is, "Neither of us is going to get hurt because we're being careful."  He says,

In the real world, young children are capable of assessing many of their own risks, but only if they've had the chance to practice; only if they're well versed in the art of critical thinking and not the habits of mere obedience. An adult who commands, "Don't slide down that banister!" might be keeping a child safe in that moment, but is also, at the same time, robbing him of a chance to think for himself, which makes him that much less safe in the future when no one is there to tell him what to do. Better to state the facts ("If you slide down that banister you might get hurt.") and let him practice thinking things through for himself, to consider the possible consequences of his actions, to assess his own risks, to ask himself, "Is this a risk worth taking?"

I think that all of us, teachers and parents and school administrators alike, need to take a step back from our liability-conscious, safety-first positions, and consider the longer-term goals we have for the children with whom we’ve been entrusted.  As founder of The Tinkering School and author of Fifty Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do) Gever Tully says in his fantastic TED presentation, "When we round every corner and eliminate every sharp object, every pokey bit in the world, then the first time that kids come in contact with anything sharp or not made of round plastic they hurt themselves with it."

Teacher Tom concurs, “I’m convinced that every owie we help them avoid is really just an owie we’ve pushed off into the future.”  He continues,

Now, I would never intentionally allow a child, or any person for that matter, to hurt himself. If I see someone falling, I will always try to catch her. But at the same time, I understand that every injury we avoid today, by physically preventing the injury or forbidding an activity in which an injury might take place, we've merely pushed that injury off into the future. At some point, if a child is going to ever learn to drive a nail, he will hit his own thumb. That's how everyone learns to use a hammer and it's going to hurt no matter when we do it. One could argue, in fact, that young children with their low to the ground bodies, flexible bones, quicker healing times, and shorter memories are designed by nature to learn exactly these lessons now, rather than later when falls are from a greater height, bones are easier to break, wounds slower to mend, and emotional recovery time longer.

He maintains that this shouldn’t be limited to physical risk-taking, either—that children should be encouraged to practice speaking in front of a group, to learn about being accepted and rejected by friends, to deal with disappointment, fear, failure, and even death.  “Our job as adults is to not help children avoid these things, but rather to help them stop for a moment, assess the risks, plan for the potential consequences, eliminate the unnecessary risk, mitigate the inherent risk, and then pick themselves up, brush themselves off, and get on with their lives of doing.”

So, if we accept that we can best help our children by stepping down from our roles as the safety police and turning the responsibilities over to the children, how do we go about it?  Nancy Eppler-Wolff and Susan Davis, clinical psychologists and authors of Raising Children Who Soar:  A Guide to Healthy Risk-Taking in an Uncertain World (Teacher’s College Press, 2009) suggest we teach children the following four steps toward good risk taking.

  1. Identify the risk

  2. Stay aware of the potential dangers and benefits

  3. Think through one’s actions

  4. Evaluate one’s actions afterwards

Wendy Mogel, Ph.D, wrote in Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children (Scribner, 2001) “Keeping too close an eye on children is a stumbling block. …If they don’t have the chance to fail, they can’t learn.  And if they aren’t allowed to face scary situations, they’ll grow up to be frightened of life’s simplest challenges.  …Every child is different.  Look at the particular person God has given you and use your best judgment, but never assume that any child is too fragile to fly.”  I think that as parents and teachers alike, we need to have more faith in the children under our care, greater courage to letting them face challenges, and the ability to trust that the child can and will cope successfully with bumps and bruises—physical and emotional—and emerge as a competent, strong and confident adult.