Teaching your child to take responsible risks

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“There is a time for daring and a time for caution, and a wise man knows which is called for.” – John Keating, Dead Poet’s Society

Everyone knows, deep down, that there is no reward without risk. When we were still too young to read, our parents read us bedtime stories of swashbuckling pirates, daredevil adventurers and fearless warriors. These stories made the very idea of risk, adventure, and exploration seem incredibly exciting and appealing.

And when we became parents, we did the same for our kids. We read them the same fairy tales at bedtime, and hoped inwardly that they picked up a little – but not too much – of an appetite for risk. We know intuitively that our kids need to have a little spark of derring-do, a willingness to fail or to try something new, in order to make the most of life.

Indeed, educators and researchers have found that this spirit of adventure is associated with intelligence and success, which is why responsible risk-taking is another key habit of mind that we want to inculcate our children with.

“Daring and risk-willingness activate and challenge the brains capacity and contribute towards learning, coping strategies and development,” said Finnish behavioural analyst Dagfinn Moe, whose research found a correlation between intelligence and risk-taking behaviour in adolescent males. “We must stop regarding daring and risk-willingness simply as undesirable and uncontrolled behaviour patterns.”

There are two elements to developing this habit of mind – developing a desire to try new things, and developing the maturity to assess if this risk is worth taking.

This habit of mind isn’t about taking crazy amounts of risk, but about taking “responsible” risks. For most children, this is the skill that they need to work on, and this is the questioning attitude that will really help them develop their critical thinking skills. Here are some questions you can ask to help them assess if a risk is worth taking:

How will it help or hurt me?
Sit down and list down all the pros and cons of a decision to help your child gain perspective. You can demonstrate how you do this with the decisions you have to make, so your child can learn about how you make your own choices, or you can use this to guide your child as he thinks through his own big decisions.

What’s the worse that could happen?
Brainstorm worst-case scenarios and the likelihood of that outcome. Discuss what plan B looks like, and think about ways to recover if things go awry. “If you try this new food and don’t like it, you can spit it out or have a sip of water to wash it down. I won’t make you try it again.” Or, “Try riding your bike without training wheels. We’ll do it on soft ground so you don’t hurt yourself if you fall”.

Your child might not be an innately adventurous sort. Not all children want to be the first one to try something new; some prefer the comfort of doing the same, safe things. Others are perhaps afraid of making mistakes or failing. So how can we encourage our children to branch out? Here’s how:

Reassure your child
Your child needs to have a safe space from which to adventure out from – taking a risk is a lot easier if you know that your parents will love you regardless if you fail. Show your child that you value their effort as opposed to the results – this is all part of helping your child develop a growth mindset.

Encourage your child
Younger children especially will benefit from some help in embracing risks – help your child find an appropriate challenge, one that is exciting enough but not too scary. Jumping off a slightly higher platform, for example, or trying a bigger slide.

Give them a mantra
“Feel the fear and do it anyway.” Coined by author Susan Jeffers, it’s a mantra that children can repeat to themselves if they feel frightened. Fear is a valid emotion and a natural response to risk. It’s okay to feel the fear – but go ahead and try anyway!


 This is part 13 of a 16-part series on Habits of Mind. Follow the series here.

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