Hands Off, Eyes On: Letting Kids Take Risks They Can Handle

There is a consensus brewing that we are depriving this current generation of young kids a chance to do what they are not only equipped to do, but need to do – take some risks. And we’re not talking about trivial ones, either. Chrisanne Grise raises the issue that kids may need to learn how to handle “dangerous” things like power tools, make fires, and derive the benefits that occur from “playing with knives.” These kinds of opportunities used to be a part of growing up, but some worry that kids are being sheltered from these key learning experiences – done of course with adult supervision – because of excessive and inappropriate fear.


Hanna Rosin focuses on some of the misguided reasons we are raising “The Overprotected Kid” in the Atlantic. She details our preoccupation with kids’ safety that goes beyond the actual risks. For example, while many parents don’t want their kids to wander in their neighborhoods alone because of fear of abduction, a review of the statistics suggests that abduction by a stranger is a very rare occurrence, and that the rate has not increased over the years. What’s changed is simply the perception. The same goes for injury. She describes a new kind of playground that is filled with all kinds of potential “dangerous” objects and opportunities for calculated risks – in some ways, one that looks more like a junkyard than a playground. It’s been suggested, by Rosin and others, that we need more of this for our kids, because our playgrounds have become designed to prevent injury rather than promote appropriate risk taking – assuming that kids even go there because of overriding safety concerns.

In principle, I agree with this emerging perspective. For many kids growing up today, there are fewer and fewer opportunities to practice risk taking. Risk taking is an important skill – every kid needs to learn how to stretch themselves, how to do something that they are a little scared of doing because they haven’t done it before. Part of the reason for “overprotection” is certainly the parental gravitation to fear. This is certainly evident in terms of the physical environment as discussed by Rosin, Grise, and others. The solution is somewhat straightforward – providing what I describe as “Hands Off, Eyes On” opportunities for kids. While you might not want to send your kid to a camp or playground that champions fire making, the broader idea is certainly a good one. We want to know they are in an environment where they can take a supervised risk, and we want to let them have a chance to fall and risk getting hurt.


I contend, however, that much of the parental mindset that inhibits risk taking isn’t driven by fear of injury – it’s more about concern with success. While many kids aren’t wandering around playgrounds and playing in junkyards, they are doing structured physical activities that carry plenty of risk of injury. Think about the current concern about concussions in football. Have a look at the risk for serious injury that comes with being a cheerleader. We’re quick to dismiss these risks because we see the link with potential for achievement. We don’t see the same connection for unstructured play. “Play” may be in fact less dangerous than our structured sports – yet we focus more on the risk because we don’t see the benefit. This is the case even though the physical, social, and cognitive virtues of exploration have been well articulated many times in both the academic and popular press. It’s just harder to see the immediate deliverables of that experience as compared to watching a kid hit a home run. And this broader concern with success is not limited to the playground or sports field. “Overprotection” certainly happens in the social and academic realms as well, as phrases like “helicopter parent” have become not only mainstream but cliches. There is plenty of social and academic risk taking that can also be inhibited because of the perception of risk (e.g., a bad grade) as opposed to the benefit of pushing oneself in a new direction (e.g., a child taking a class in a new area of study that will eventually lead them to doing something with that experience even if they don’t get an “A”).


So where do we take all this? Gail O’Connor suggests that we all – parents and kids alike – benefit if parents become less “hands-on.” It’s a healthy perspective and one worth considering. We can, of course, be “eyes on” though, to make sure we are exposing kids to risks that they can handle. For some, this may mean letting them walk around their neighborhood. For others, that may not be the case. Parents can define for themselves what life skills they want their kids to have and how to let them begin to acquire them. What’s important is that we embrace the idea that risk taking is a part of childhood, and it’s more about the process of learning how to take meaningful risks – rather than the immediate payoff – that will serve kids best in the long run.

Kid in Snow via Shutterstock.com

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