Ever found yourself shouting, “Be careful!” as your child catapults up a tree? It’s totally normal for your heart to skip a beat—and for your kid to want to climb higher. In fact, experts approve of that last part. Here’s what some good, safe adventure can do for your child’s development and confidence.
Advertisement

When it comes to adventure, I almost always play it safe. But when I was 23, I pushed my fear to its limits by going on a hot-air-balloon ride in New Mexico. I was exhilarated after trying something that made me feel so free, but little did I know that less than six hours later I would be in a terrible rollover accident in an SUV on the way to the airport.

Thankfully, I was fine and able to walk away from the crash, but that experience certainly didn't inspire me to throw caution to the wind. After all, you never know what will turn out to be truly dangerous. In fact, since having kids, I've often wrestled with how I can keep them safe while also instilling a thirst for excitement. Shortly after booking a zip-lining experience in the Smoky Mountains earlier this year, I had nightmares of its ending in complete disaster. Those nightmares persisted up to the day of our trip. Had I made a terrible mistake?

On the afternoon of our tour, as we climbed the tower steps and the guides began clipping in my excited kids, ages 7 and 11, to ride tandem, I just about called off the whole thing. And then, suddenly, two of my favorite people whizzed away down a steel cable high above the trees.

When my husband and I caught up to them at the next tower, we saw just how proud—and thrilled—they were. The downright fun of it all was contagious, and we eagerly waited to do it again. At the end, I could tell that my kids felt braver and more confident. And though we did lots of other fun activities on that trip, they couldn't stop talking about this one.

Experts say that fostering a sense of adventure in children can build life skills such as confidence, resilience, and a willingness to take risks in general. And all it requires from you is a little push and trust in the phrase "Everything will be all right." In short, there are ways to make adventure happen without letting your fear get in the way.

balance step activity adventure outside
Baby steps: Start with a simple activity before jumping into something bigger.
| Credit: Cara Dolan/Stocksy

Do Your Research

Sometimes parents worry about potentially risky activities because of a difficult or bad memory from their own childhood, says Parents advisor Khama Ennis, M.D., M.P.H., associate chief of emergency medicine at Cooley Dickinson Hospital, in Northampton, Massachusetts. "Remind yourself that you won't be able to protect your kids forever, so you need to give them tools to navigate risks now."

The hours I spent investigating different zip-lining facilities in the Smoky Mountains and choosing which one I trusted to be the safest experience for my family was exactly what I needed to do to assess all my safety concerns, explains Jill Wheeler, a psychotherapist and founder of Wellfit Girls, a nonprofit that teaches leadership to teen girls through fitness and outdoor activities. I read plenty of reviews and even called the various attractions to ask questions about how they operate.

Teach Kids to Assess Risk

When children experience a thrill and master a fear through "risky" activities like tree climbing or sledding, they learn to deal with their fears and take control of more situations in general, says Peter Gray, Ph.D., a research professor at Boston College and author of Free to Learn, who has focused much of his work studying risky play. Life does not come without challenges, he adds. If your child is worried about an activity, you can reassure them that you've done your homework by looking into the safety records and certifications and that you wouldn't put them in a situation that was truly perilous. "Walking a child through what will happen can give them a more accurate perspective of what they're afraid of," Dr. Ennis says. "Listen to what they're worried about, and remind them of a previous time when they benefitted from doing something that made them nervous."

Of course, certain activities pose a higher risk for your kid to get hurt. "While tackle football is fun, there's a chance that a player could get a concussion, fracture, or spinal-cord injury," notes Parents advisor Mark Anthony Griffiths, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics and emergency medicine at Emory University School of Medicine, in Atlanta. Safety measures, like wearing a helmet and pads and refraining from tackling, can mitigate these risks. And, although exciting, riding an all-terrain vehicle is another dangerous activity that should be saved for kids over 16 years old.

kids adventures climbing woods string
Credit: Stephanie Rausser/Gallery Stock

Recognize When Your Fear Is the Issue

It's natural to feel apprehensive about something you've never done before or to get caught up in the what-ifs of things that could go wrong. It can even happen to experienced adventurers like Monet Hambrick, founder of The Traveling Child blog and Instagram account, who has circled the world with her family to surf, kayak, snowmobile, hike glaciers, and go sand-dune boarding. "I'm afraid of heights but try very hard not to instill this fear into my kids," she says. When the family was vacationing in Costa Rica, her 3-year-old wanted to test out a Tarzan-style rope swing. Hambrick thought it looked terrifying, but the guide said her daughter met the weight requirements and could do it safely. "I held myself back from saying it was too high or too scary so that she could make her own decision," says Hambrick. "She was really proud of herself for doing it."

Fear of heights or falling are rational concerns, but they can lead to excessive avoidance or distress when people are faced with situations that raise them. These fears then can be viewed as"phobias" that hold back kids and adults, says Wendy Silverman, Ph.D., director of the Yale Child Study Center Program for Anxiety Disorders. If you or your child is nervous, ease into the activity. If you'd like to work your way up to a white-water-rafting experience, for example, you might start by canoeing, kayaking, or paddleboarding on a calm body of water.

Smaller adventures make the bigger ones more doable. "Look for ways that you can expose your child to their fear incrementally so they start to build confidence," says Jim Taylor, Ph.D., a psychologist and author of Positive Pushing: How to Raise a Successful and Happy Child. "As they begin to realize that their fear was overstated, they'll become braver." And so will you.

skateboard outside activity adventure kid
Before they take off on their skateboard, yes, they still need their protective gear.
| Credit: Sasha Gulish

Give Just Enough Encouragement

While actually trying experiences such as skateboarding, skiing, or riding a roller coaster can help your child master their fear of them, make sure that they're the ones choosing to participate—not you. Pushing a child past their boundary before they're ready to go there can be traumatizing rather than empowering, Dr. Gray says.

Still, there's nothing wrong with encouraging your reluctant kid to embark on something that gives them butterflies. After all, if they've never done it before, they really have no way of making a completely informed decision about whether or not they like the activity. "You don't have to pretend it's not scary, but you can let your kid know that it's safe and something you think will be worth going for," Dr. Taylor explains.

Of course, many activities don't have set age guidelines, and you know your child best. "Kids develop in their own unique ways and at different paces, thanks to a combination of their genetic predisposition and their upbringing," Dr. Taylor says. You might have a kid who needs a little nudge or a kid who's a complete daredevil. Or you might have a kid who falls in the middle—they're down for cannonballing off the high dive into a pool but not for tubing behind a boat in a lake.

Fears can be inborn, or they can be learned through experiences. In early infancy, for example, babies are startled by loud noises. But a fear of heights, strangers, or getting lost usually kicks in at around 8 months, when kids become mobile. "At 4 years old, a child has a fairly good understanding of what they can and can't manage—what's safe and what's dangerous," Dr. Gray notes. "Kids this age will want to test themselves, such as by venturing away from their parent at a store or by trying to jump from something high up."

On our zip-lining adventure, I knew that my daughter, who had some fear of heights, might struggle at the top. Before we booked the trip, we talked about whether it was something she felt she could do, and we watched videos to know what to expect. But I knew she might still need a gentle push (metaphorically, of course) when it came time to jump. Had I not felt confident that she would love it after that initial line, I wouldn't have encouraged her to do it.

"We can let our kids know that we hear and see their fears—and that those fears are valid—but still urge them to do something thrilling," Wheeler says. "It is ultimately part of building their confidence when we tell our kids that we know they can do it."

Set a Good Example

You set the tone for your kids on how to tackle adventure. When you're positive, trusting, and engaged in the experience, kids tend to follow suit. And in the future, when they're off at summer camp or in their gymnastics class, they'll probably be more willing to go for that ropes course or work through a new tumbling routine. "I am afraid of heights, but I pushed myself and my child to get on a roller coaster once I was assured that safety measures were in place," Dr. Griffiths says. "While a little fear-inducing at first, it turned out to be a great bonding moment."

Often it's these endeavors that become some of the best memories your kids will recall from their childhood—it gives that sense of "we're all in this together." "It's good to play," Wheeler says. "This world can be so serious. We can't forget that fun is important."

boys adventure trees outside jumping
Credit: Lucas Zordan/Gallery Stock

Get Ready for a New Adventure

So your family has a few feats under their belt already? Consider some leveled-up options next.

  • If you've tried sledding...now try snowmobiling.
  • If you've tried cross-country skiing or snowshoeing...now try downhill skiing.
  • If you've tried a Ferris wheel...now try a roller coaster.
  • If you've tried a ropes course...now try zip-lining.
  • If you've tries monkey bars...now try climbing a tree.
  • If you've tried biking...now try mountain biking.
  • If you've tried skateboarding on the sidewalk...now try skateboarding at a skate park.
  • If you've tried canoeing or paddleboarding...now try river rafting.

Living With a Daredevil

While some parents might have to coax kids to try something adventurous, others wish they could rein in their risk-takers before they get hurt. If that sounds familiar, there are ways to reason with your little stuntperson.

Assess the situation

First and foremost, take an honest look at what your kid is doing. "Ask yourself, 'Is my child truly taking risks to the point of harm, or are they just stepping outside of my own comfort zone?'" says psychologist Jim Taylor, Ph.D. "Often we pass our fears on to our kids because we're worried that they'll get hurt. But in the process, we make them afraid of what we're afraid of, rather than letting them learn and develop their own limits."

Talk openly about what could happen

Of course, some kids truly are risk seekers—it's just how their brain is wired. These are kids who climb a tree too high, ride a bike too fast, or seem continually in search of higher places to jump from. These mini adrenaline junkies just might be future rock climbers, skydivers, or entrepreneurs. The prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for decision making, isn't fully developed in a kid, so you need to help them learn to think before they act. "Rather than totally killing your kid's rush, talk about what they're trying to do," Dr. Taylor says. "If they want to climb all the way to the top of the tree, ask them what problems they might encounter and if they have a plan. Taking risks really is about decision making, and as parents, we can help guide kids to make better choices."

Use injuries as teaching moments

If a daredevil kid gets hurt—or has a close call—take a step back. "Tell your child you love that they take chances because it will serve them well in life, but that if they're getting injured a lot (or almost getting injured), they need to consider different choices and take precautions, like wearing a helmet or knee pads," Dr. Taylor says.

This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's December 2021 issue as "Raise an Adventurous Kid." Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here

Parents magazine