Have you noticed that many parenting blogs have embraced the mission of encouraging parents to let their children take more risks?
I once lived in a culture where trusted, adventurous, children were commonplace. This was the United States in the 1950’s. Here, as a child, I climbed tall trees, sailed across the bay with my younger brothers and traipsed through the woods with my best friend. In today’s parlance, my parents would have been considered the opposite of helicopter parents and it would be said that I was allowed to “manage risk.”
As parenting culture inches toward allowing children to have freer, more adventurous lives, lets stop for a moment and consider how best to speak about this evolution.
Certainly, the way in which we speak about appropriate childhood activities has changed since I was a kid in the 1950s. In spite of the freedom I was given to look out across rooftops from my treetop aerie and to step off a boat and onto a dock four miles from home sans adult supervision, I am sure my 1950’s parents would have been shocked had anyone suggested that they “allowed their children to manage risk.” They would have countered by saying that, if you want to see children taking risks, watch the little tykes who live at the corner riding tricycles in the middle of the street with no instruction about the rules of the road. And, they would have pointed out that they had taught me how to be safe on a boat, high in a tree and on a bike and that they trusted me to enjoy those activities without taking risks.
“Risk management” is a rather bizarre phrase to use in relation to children. It is concept originally developed for financial investors and the insurance industry that has spread to engineering and now, unfortunately, childhood. Here is a definition from businessdictionary.com “The identification, analysis, assessment, control, and avoidance, minimization, or elimination of unacceptable risks.”
My 1950s parents would have found the application of this term to their children to be strange and confusing. They would have been particularly disturbed about the idea of managing rather than minimizing risk.
Our children are also confused when they hear adults proclaim that they allow them to “manage risk.” Risky means dangerous. So, might a child guess that “managing risk” actually means it is OK to chance perilous methods of tree climbing or bike riding? Does ‘managing risk’ mean taking a risk to run across the street when it is not perfectly clear that the traffic is at a reasonable distance? Basically, it’s just too risky to use the word “risk” when communicating with children about challenging activities. Wouldn’t it be better for them to hear they are trusted to be safe while being adventurous?
One of the highlights of summer in our 1950’s waterfront town was the annual capsize drill. Each July, everyone — parents, kids, grandparents, dogs —crowded onto the the neighborhood’s longest pier and watched an experienced adult crew purposely tip over a 20 foot long wooden sailboat. This demonstration was hilarious when the breeze was light and the sailors had to break common rules of seamanship to force the boat over. This difficulty in flipping the boat was actually reassuring to us novice sailors who tended to imagine we were almost always on the brink of disaster. But, after what seemed like hours of comical antics, the sailboat eventually upended in a slow motion rotation, the sail sweeping through a great arc and settling softly onto the water, the hull sideways with the bottom paint visible.
The entire event from the initial, futile capsize attempts through the recovery was described via megaphone by an experienced sailor who explained the actions taken to stay safe and return the boat to an operational state. One summer, at age nine, when I was a member of a four child crew that accidentally capsized during a windy race, I experienced no fear because I remembered the instructions given during the drill and knew exactly what to do.
If we want our children to inspire our trust, we must provide them with protection and preparation. Ultimately, preparation becomes the best protection.
Most of the safety lessons I remember from my childhood were not as dramatic as a capsize drill. Parents, teachers and coaches told us to always hold on when climbing a tree or walking in a boat, to stay off any pond ice not tested by an adult, to hold scissors and knives in proscribed ways and to handle gun as if it is always loaded. (Yes, I had my own rifle for target practice.) We took these lessons seriously and sometimes reminded our peers about the safety rules we had all learned. Knowing and being trusted to use strategies for staying safe made us feel alert, mature, thoughtful and competent.
As we attempt to move toward allowing children more freedom to explore their world, the emphasis on the word “risk” shows that we still haven’t let go of the mindset of the helicopter parent who is more aware of danger than adventure, more focused on what could go wrong than how to prepare kids to be both independent and safe in challenging situations.
So, please, can we stop talking about risk? Instead, let’s talk about adventure, preparation and trust.
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