Risky Business

As your child tries new activities, help him learn to assess risk responsibly.
Nov 06, 2012



Andrew, age 11, was becoming increasingly, and uncharacteristically, irritable and snappish. When his parents asked what was bothering him, he burst out, "You won't let me do anything!" After some calm questioning, however, Andrew was able to say that what he really wanted was more time to ride his skateboard outside with his friends, on his own, away from the prying eyes of adults. So his parents made a deal with him. Andrew could walk to the park to ride the board, and even try out the more exciting — and "risky" — skate park, with dips, jumps, and hills, provided he went with at least two other friends, stayed with them at all times, and was home by an agreed-upon time. If he broke those rules, the privilege would be withdrawn.

Later, Andrew's dad admitted that he'd found it difficult to let his son go, but seeing how proud Andrew was after he returned home on time helped him realize how much Andrew needed this opportunity. "It was such an adventure and a clear milestone for him," his father said. "As soon as he got home, he asked when he could go again!" As an added bonus, Andrew's tantrums stopped almost immediately.

What to Expect
Children are naturally curious about the unknown and many have a seemingly unrelenting fascination with the forbidden. But the desire to test boundaries really comes to the fore during those stages of childhood when children need to assert themselves, become hungry for independence, and begin to feel more capable. The pre-teen years are one such stage.

To prove their growing maturity and sense of pride, tween boys especially are keen to master the things that used to frighten them. But both girls and boys love to play with fire (girls go for candles or building small fires to toast food while boys prefer to experiment with flame colors, smells, and bangs), and to show off on playground equipment or by climbing trees or jumping streams. At this age, children are also eager to play on their own in parks and other public spaces and to be left alone at home for short periods. And just like toddlers, they will occasionally see how far they can push rules before getting caught. But probing the prohibited is not without benefits. It helps kids learn to identify the point where thrills and fun can turn into real danger, what to be on guard for, and what to avoid in the future.

Mostly, you can expect that your tween's sense of responsibility will grow along with his gradually increased freedoms. But inevitably, there will be times when he misjudges what he can and should do. In fact, it's not that unusual for children to go so far as to break the law during the tween years, typically by shoplifting, causing minor car or property damage, or setting a fire. While most of those who dabble in this kind of behavior drop it as part of growing up, some will stay on the wrong side of the track. Given that the majority of chronic teenage offenders begin in their pre-teens, it is crucial to monitor your tween closely and to respond quickly and seriously to worrisome attitudes or behavior. But try to do so gently and with understanding. Strong and immediate punishment could prove counter-productive.

How You Can Help
Experiencing gradually increased risk, responsibility, and trust is essential to healthy development. Attempting to keep your tween away from every scary situation doesn't do him any favors. It's easy to forget that learning is sometimes a risky process, both inside and outside the classroom. A child who fears failure and hates to get anything wrong will be less able to work independently or think creatively. More generally, overprotection can lead to unsafe naïveté and inexperience and can tempt your child to jump straight into the deep end of a situation, both to get his kicks and to, in effect, kick you, out of frustration, self-respect, and anger. Here are a few ways to promote healthy risk-taking:

Encourage adventure, fun, and exploration. Look for supervised activities that allow your child to test his daring, strength, and sense of responsibility, while extending his practical skills. Your tween will probably love camping; learning how to build a fire or help with the grill; hobbies that involve fine motor skills and powers of concentration, such as woodworking; and sports that contain an element of risk, such as horseback riding, ice-skating, rock climbing, whitewater rafting, and skateboarding.

Bestow greater responsibility. Gradually increase the chores and tasks your child must share in at home. Focus initially on those that relate to his personal needs, such as packing his own things for school, sports, and sleepovers or running his own shower or bath. Later, add chores that help the family, such as setting the table or taking out the trash. Though your child may complain about having to do chores, they will help him feel capable, learn to think ahead about possible consequences, and expand his experience base.

Give space but remain close. Research shows that when children are regularly criticized for making mistakes as they explore and experiment, they can become increasingly risk-averse, hampered by a fear of failure. It also shows that children who have too much freedom at too young an age often feel neglected and unimportant, which can make them defiant and more likely to be careless of their own and others' health and safety. The best course is to stay engaged with your tween and show him warmth, love, and trust as you encourage him to manage more and more on his own.

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