Why Kids Need to Take More Risks Not Less

by ChristinaPilkington on May 19, 2012 · 11 comments

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One day last summer I took the kids to a nearby park. I was enjoying a rare moment of reading alone when I heard a woman gasp. I glanced up at her, and she looked over at me with a scared look on her face.

“Oh my goodness! Is that your son?” she asked.

I immediately had a sick feeling in my stomach and frantically looked around for Jared. I was imagining the worst.

Then I spotted him…up in a tree….having a great time.

I was annoyed at first with the woman for getting me scared, but she genuinely looked frightened for my son.  I just didn’t get it. He was five years old. He had been climbing trees since he was three. It wasn’t even a big tree.

I was reminded of that day this past week when I read these two articles: Are Safety-Obsessed Playgrounds Spoiling Our Children?  and  Obsession with Safety is Ruining Our Playgrounds

The articles do a great job of describing the benefits of allowing children to participate in “risky play.” By eliminating all risks from children’s play we’re not allowing them to master a variety of environments, and we’re creating unrealistic and unnatural fears.

We’re actually increasing the likelihood that our children will get seriously injured when we don’t allow them to take physical risks when they are young.

I was also reminded of a talk I heard at a homeschooling conference in March given by psychologist Peter Gray. He discussed how our obsession with safety is ruining our children’s ability to protect themselves.

About five months ago, Gray wrote a great blog post called How Children Learn Bravery in an Age of Overprotection.  In the post, he shared stories of children who were allowed greater freedom in doing things like taking trips alone and finding their way back home using public transportation.

Here’s a quote from the end of the post.

“Nothing in life is without risk.  When we deprive our children of taking the risks that they must take to grow in competence, confidence, and courage, we run the greater and ultimately more tragic risk that they will never learn to take charge of their own lives.”

It’s one thing to want to allow our children to take risks; it’s quite another thing to do in practice. In speaking from my own experience, it can be a scary thing sometimes. My son, especially, has always been a big risk taker.

How do I know when it’s a good thing to allow my kids more freedom in risk-taking and when to tell them no?

Here’s 5 questions I ask before allowing my kids to do something I consider risky

1.  Will this case permanent harm to themselves or others?

My nephew broke his arm when someone slid down a slide and knocked him over. Sometimes kids will get hurt even if they aren’t doing anything risky at all. We can do some things like sharing tips and advice with our kids to help them navigate potentially harmful situation, but I’ve come to realize that kids will get hurt no matter how hard we try to protect them from danger.

If there’s a chance my kids might get some scrapes and bruises and maybe even a broken bone from doing something risky, than depending on their abilities, I probably will allow them to do it. If there’s a great chance that they’ll die from the situation, then I’ll say no.

2.  Will this help them learn how to protect themselves better in the future?

I don’t want to keep the kids away from fire; I want to show them how to be safe around fire by giving them lots of chances to be around it. I don’t want the kids to be afraid of taking public transportation and learning how to get around a city by themselves when they turn 18; I want them to have lots of chances on their own before that to learn how to navigate directions.

3.  Is it helping them develop positive risk-taking abilities?

The more your kids embrace positive risk taking the more creative, inventive and curious they will be.

4. Is it helping them push beyond their comfort level?

Did you ever want to do something just a little bit crazy because you wanted to push past a fear you had?  If our kids suddenly want to try something a little risky that they’ve never attempted before, they might be tired of being stuck in a comfort zone and want to stretch themselves a bit.

5.  Is it helping them develop independence?

Kids don’t just instantly develop all the skills they need to take care of themselves the minute they turn 18. They need years of practice to learn not only the skills they need to provide for themselves, but also the attitudes and beliefs that they can go into strange and new experiences alone and be able to navigate them successfully.

I’d like to leave you with two important resources that will give you a new perspective on why we should be encouraging our children to do some things that many people view as dangerous.

The first is a book called 50 Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Children Do

-          Make a Bomb in a Bag

-          Squash Pennies on a Railroad Track

-          Break Glass

-          Go Underground

-          Play with Fire

I’d also highly encourage you to watch the TED talk below titled Gever Tulley’s (founder of Tinkering School) 5 Dangerous Things You Should Let Your Children Do.


Photo Credit: carla777@sbcglobal.net

Is it hard or easy for you to allow your children to take risks? What risks have your children taken that have made you nervous?


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  • http://thegettys.blogspot.com Susan

    Another super post, Chris :) Some people would be maybe appalled at the things we allow our girls to do…they definitely climb trees, they climb all over the top of the swing set, they are outside on their own for hours at a time exploring (always on our property, and I do check on them from time to time), and they have been learning to drive a lawn mower tractor…just to name a few things. I often have anxiety myself about certain situations, but I try very hard to contain it and not pass it on. I want my girls to be strong and confident in their abilities to try new challenges.

    • christinapilkington

      You reminded me of when I was 11 and we visited my grandparents home in Indiana. They lived on a few acres and my grandfather had a riding lawnmower. He let me drive it by myself, and I will never forget that day and how I felt. I think we wonder why so many kids are not independent, yet as a whole our society doen’t give kids enough opportunity to practie that independence. I definitely think independence is something you have to practice at and work hard at; it usually doesn’t come naturally.

  • http://www.emergency-survival-skills.com/ Just AnotherRealMom

    LOVE IT! My 9 year old would take a 22 rifle or bow and arrow out to the woods and he’d be out there for HOURS. Several times he didn’t get back till after dark, but that was because he ventured further than he realized! He had some exciting tales to tell, and some that I am only now hearing about ( he is a 22 year old now and married) but he learned so much out there…..yes some of my kids did get their fingers caught in the wringer on my old washing machine, and they had to work hard at times, but the bones that got broken were from sports, once they were in high school, or from some silly thing like tipping their chair over backwards at the kitchen table.

    My boys have thanked me many times for letting them be BOYS. =)

    • christinapilkington

      Thanks! Wow! You really had a lot of trust in your son. I think that’s wonderful! When kids know you can trust them like that, I think it builds a much closer relationship. And you’re right that kids are so much more capable than we give them credit for. Boys are biologically wired to be very physical. When we restrict them to sitting still for long periods of time when they are young, we’re actually damaging them physically.

      By the way, I just checked out your site. Very, very cool!

      • http://www.emergency-survival-skills.com/wilderness-survival-story.html MySonsSurvivalStory =)

        Thanks! ( that same son has a cool survival story that I added on the website – well, it wasn’t cool at the time it happened! – but it was really neat how the things he learned at a very young age saved his life when he most needed it…. )

        • christinapilkington

          Once again, thanks for sharing an incredible story with me. That was amazing! I think many kids, especially in the US don’t get enough experience with how to take care of themselves if they find themselves in dangerous situations. One thing I hope my kids will get a chance to do as they grow up is to take lots of survival type classes and be in many situations where they have to rely on themselves and what they have learned and practiced in order to get through it.

  • Catherine Way

    I like the idea of getting your children a pocket knife. I think my eldest son would love that and I’m going to add it to my mental bday present list.
    I try and let my children take risks, although they often scare me. I think the scariest times for me are when they are encouraging each other to take risks – like when my eldest son is encouraging his little brother to jump off the side of the slide.

  • Katerina Koleva

    The Continuum concept was the book that encouraged me a lot about kids and taking risks.

    • christinapilkington

      I forgot about that book! I had read it about 8 or 9 years ago. I’m glad you reminded me about it. I wish I would have included it in the post :)

  • http://thefroestroom.blogspot.com/ sarah in the woods

    When my kids were little and I would take them to the playground, it seemed like another parent would freak out every time just because I didn’t stand under them while they climbed on the playground equipment. These parents would end up standing underneath my kids in case they fell, which was annoying because my kids were perfectly capable of climbing on the playground equipment, and it made me feel like I was being negligent. I would also hear parents say to their own kids, “No we’re not playing on that. It’s too dangerous.”
    Now, my kids prefer to play on the outside of the equipment – whatever is riskiest.
    When I see my kids in the very top of the big tree in our backyard, my heart jumps into my throat. I don’t say anything though, because I spent my childhood climbing trees and being risky. I think kids pretty much know what they are capable of.

    • christinapilkington

      My kids love to play on the outside of the equipment the most! Last year when we were at a McDonald’s playplace and I was reading a book, Jared called to me and I say him on the outside of the spiral tunnel slide. That was a bit scary, too! I understand what you’re saying, too, about other parents making you feel negligent. I’m getting better at ignoring that, but it still gets to me once in a while.

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