On Risk


I’m not naturally a risk-taker. But, I have taken risks. This was especially true when I was a kid.

I never once wore a helmet while riding a bike. I can remember going over the handlebars a number of times while riding at the abandoned BMX track we found at a local park. We’d go flying over jumps without even thinking about safety. I remember playing dodge ball with my friends at church. We’d find the darkest room we could and hurl playground balls at one another with only my friend’s strobe light turned on. I remember playing “Frogger” (yes, I’m in my mid 30s) with my friends as they swung back and forth on the swing set. I remember being knocked off my feet because of a poorly timed sprint from one end to the other. I remember shooting bottle rockets at passing cars, riding rope swings into the creek, and shooting BB guns at my friend in his backyard.

I wasn’t reckless or crazy. I was a kid.

It’s the same today. The kids in our neighborhood make me laugh because they do some of the same silly stuff I used to do. They perform back flips off the swings in our yard. They throw their dad’s hunting knife at a tree, trying to embed the blade in the trunk. They put a bike ramp on the side of the hill, ride over it, and end up on their backs. They do crazy stunts on their skateboards. They jump off the monkey bars at the park. And, they live to tell about it! The only difference? Now they wear helmets.

Looking back, I suppose taking risks comes natural to kids. Somehow we survive.

Recently, my wife shared an article with me that made me reflect upon the risks I took as a kid. It’s a long read; but it’s worth it. This is an extreme example but it’s worth reflecting upon. The premise, if you don’t have time to read it, is that today’s parents overprotect their children. It details the decades-old cultural trend toward over-protection. The article illustrates the trend by describing a park in North Wales called The Land. It’s essentially a trash dump where kids can explore freely with only minimal supervision. It sounds awesome!

The article makes a vivid point, even if it is extreme.

Just the other day, I urged my son to put on his helmet, “Because we love you too much to let something bad happen to you.” Why am I so careful with my son? Do I really think a ride around the cul-de-sac would bring about his demise? No. Did I freak him out? Possibly. The article made me question my zeal to protect my son. I’m not going to stop protecting him, but I’m determined to find ways to let him risk—a little bit.

I believe there is an important reason to let our kids experience a little more risk in their lives:

It teaches them about their own capabilities. I wouldn’t have known that I could fly 15 feet through the air on a bike and land successfully without maiming myself if I hadn’t tried it. I wouldn’t have known I could dive head-first from the high dive without doing a belly smacker if I hadn’t jumped. But, in those situations I learned that I have the capacity to be a courageous person. And, that’s a trait that has proven itself useful in my adult life. I want the same to be said for my son.

Regardless of what we got ourselves into as kids or what we allow our kids to get into today, I believe it’s important to reflect upon the posture we take toward them. Maybe we should back off—just a bit—and allow our kids to try some things out. Maybe we should allow them to venture around the corner without something soft protecting all of their vulnerabilities or multiple sets of eyes monitoring their every move. That doesn’t mean we relinquish our duty to protect our kids, just that we give them a slightly larger radius and a little less help. Within reason, we might even actively facilitate some risk for our kids, allow them to respond, and help them debrief what they learned.

And, as adults, maybe we need to dig deep and allow ourselves to experience a bit of that risk-taking spirit we used to know. After all, there is so much more each of us might accomplish with just a pinch of risk.

What about you and your kids? What could you accomplish if you were willing to risk?